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Adventures in Homeownership: How a leaking pipe turned into a month-long negotiation

What seemed like an everyday repair turned into a month-long negotiation with a contractor.

I have an unfinished basement and, as with any basement, it’s damp. So, I have a dehumidifier that runs when necessary. When I first moved in, I noticed an elbow-shaped pipe that ran from the side wall of the basement down into a raised concrete block. I found it strange, but paid little attention to it until it started to leak. It wouldn’t leak under normal circumstances, when it was raining or when snow was melting. Instead, it would leak about three days later, when you had already forgotten about what had happened with the weather.

Whenever I saw water all over the floor, I would get mad and again threaten to pull out the “for sale“ sign. Eventually it dawned on us that this leaking pipe was connected to the crock that our downspout ran into.  I finally got “smart” and put a bucket under it, thinking that this would be a good enough fix. Of course, I was still emptying my dehumidifier two or three times a week and--between one bucket or the other--I seemed to end up dumping water on my shoes half the time. Last fall, I got so fed up with my wet footwear that I decided to get a plumber in to fix the pipe.

Since we were planning to replace our gutters this spring, we really needed to solve the problem with the crock/pipe.  (A note to homeowners: gutter contractors only replace gutters; they don’t guarantee that once the gutters are put up that the plumbing system will do its job and take the water away!) We knew we had to take care of the plumbing issue so that, when the gutters were replaced, they would actually work.

From my experience at Home Repair Resource Center, I’ve learned that you should get at least two estimates from contractors. This way, you can compare pricing for a job and get a feel for who you will be working with. I had obtained two estimates from local plumbing contractors, and one of the plumbers really stood out. He had been in business for over fifteen years, put together a good crew and had a great reputation in the city. He also seemed very sure of the repair.  “No problem. We’ll dig out the crock, replace it and then replace the concrete pipe in the basement with a plastic pipe. It will be no more than $450.” I then asked whether they would be replacing the asphalt in the drive where they would be digging out the crock. (Thinking, “Go me! I am so smart. Mr. Contractor, you can’t pull the wool over my eyes!”) The contractor assured me that it would be included, so long as the weather was warm enough to put down an asphalt patch. 

We signed the contract and scheduled the work to be completed. A young man came and did the work. Since Dave was home during the project to keep an eye on things, the contractor let him know that he needed to go and get a part. He returned about an hour and a half later, completed the work and left. A week later we received a bill from the plumbing company--for $800. Surely they sent the wrong bill! Maybe I didn’t look closely enough, and the pipe was made out of gold? So, the next day I called and spoke with the secretary, telling her that we were super happy with the work and that the contractor was very clean and professional, but we would really like an explanation of why the bill was so much more than the price we had been quoted.

The secretary had the contractor who completed the job call me back, and he explained that the job had taken longer than anticipated and they needed an extra part that wasn’t on their truck. That’s why the job cost an extra $350. I said thank you and hung up. Dave and I then talked about it and decided that the explanation did not warrant that much extra money. We also felt that, at the time that the work was completed, the higher cost should have been mentioned. So, we called back and tried to reach the owner. He was very busy and working on a lot of jobs, so most of the time we were communicating through the secretary. In the end, though, we were able to negotiate down to about $570, based on the fact that we had never been informed of the extra charges.

It wasn’t that we wanted to stiff the contractor. It was all about principle. A contractor should notify the homeowner of any issues that arise and any additional costs that may be incurred. Some contractors may underbid jobs to get you to sign on the dotted line and then charge you a lot more at the end of the job. I don’t think that this happened in our situation--I believe that the estimator just did not look at the job as well as I thought he did. But the bottom line is that, from now on, I will have added to the contract that any additional charges over a certain amount must be discussed before the work is completed. That way, there will be no surprises and we will all be on the same page.

Home Repair Resource Center has developed some specification sheets (called “addendum to the bid”) which homeowners can provide to contractors at the time they are getting estimates. You can use the sheet to identify exactly what the contractor proposes to do, and to compare each estimate “apples to apples,” so you know what you are really getting for the price. These addendums, as well as other repair handouts, can be found on the website of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library (http://heightslibrary.org/page/hrrc), or you can stop by Home Repair Resource Center and pick up a copy for yourself.

It’s also important to find out if a contractor is licensed and bonded to work in your city. That way, if an issue does come up with a contractor, you know that your local building department is familiar with the contractor and can help you work out any issues. Also, in most communities, only licensed contractors are able to pull permits for jobs that require them.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ed Ellis February 25, 2012 at 12:54 PM
I am an electrical contractor, Castle Rock Electric LLC. Whenever I quote a job, I stick to my price. There are times that I have been short on my price, but I do not pass that on to the homeowner. I don't believe in surprising the homeowner with extra charges. This is the right way to do business.
Alex Vandehoff February 28, 2012 at 04:34 PM
Has anyone ever heard of Prime Time Plumbing? Are they any good?
Latest Leak Detection London July 18, 2012 at 09:16 AM
I think it is better to go for leak detection services.They can easily help in detecting all leakages and repairing it.We should always solve the problems before it turns into worse condition.

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