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Indispensible Help

Homeowners count on plumbers to be on call for all manner of problems, from a leaky faucet to a flooded basement. But before you pick up the phone, give yourself and your plumber a head start by familiarizing yourself with some lingo, best practices, and basic but key facts about how your home's plumbing system works. Here, This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey offers advice on how to interact with your plumber.

1. Don't Overreact

Oh no! You just discovered the toilet is stopped up—call the plumber ASAP! And then stay calm. It's important to remember that not every problem is an emergency. If your home has three other working bathrooms, a stopped-up commode is an inconvenience, not a crisis. By maintaining composure, you let your plumber prioritize jobs based on professional judgment.

2. Know the Basics

One thing plumbers wish every homeowner would know? Where the main plumbing shutoff valve is located. This way, you can stop a leak immediately, and then calmly wait for the plumber to fix the source of the problem.

3. Expect an Estimate, Not an Exact Cost

Everyone wants to know what they're getting into, but plumbers can't give a specific quote based on your description of the problem. Even looking at a situation in person yields only a best guess until the plumber can investigate behind the walls. If the final cost is higher than the estimate, go ahead and ask about it; that usually means there was more of a problem to fix than was foreseen.

4. Ask the Right Questions

To find out useful information about the tradesperson's experience or the cost of a particular job, steer clear of questions with a simple yes-or-no answer. Instead, ask open-ended questions that require an explanation. Such as, "What have you done in situations like this previously?" A plumber will be happy to supply you with informative details.

It is also fair to ask for what the best- and worst-case scenarios are. This will give you a sense of what prices to expect and also how much time a job will take. For example, if you ask about a leaking pipe, the solution might be replacing a simple valve (best case) or repiping an entire line (worst case). The difference in time might be two hours versus two days.

Ask for a detailed explanation of what complications are possible, so if something comes up you are not surprised. You aren't likely to hire a plumber who cannot explain the steps involved in the job they are doing. When necessary, ask for status updates at each step.

5. Work Out a Payment Schedule

Don't be afraid to propose to pay for the work in installments if you can't pay in one lump sum. If it's a true emergency, many homeowners will not have budgeted for the cost of the job. A smart plumber will agree to a payment plan over a few months.

For scheduled projects, such as a planned remodel, it is okay to ask for a flat rate. This method is a little untraditional for plumbers, but it allows you to pay for the completion of the project, not necessarily the amount of hours it takes to complete.

6. Don't Hover

Once a plumber has started working, give him or her some breathing room. No one does their best work with someone standing over them as they work, and plumbers are no different. You've hired them, now trust them to do the job. We used to have a sign on the wall that said, "Hourly rate: $50. If you watch: $75. If you help: $100."

7. Don't Worry About Hosting Duties

Although they're coming into your home, they're there for a job, not a visit. They'd rather get straight to work—and don't want you to think they're drinking coffee on your time (and dime)!

8. Follow the Golden Rule

Treat your plumber as you would like to be treated—with respect! Most of us are hardworking people trying to do our best work. When you hire a plumber, what you are really saying is, "I trust you."