There are some home reno projects worth tackling yourself – and many that should be trusted to professionals. Errors in plumbing jobs can mean more than just taps that don’t work. They can mean leaks, floods and damage to other areas of your home.
That’s what Kitchener, Ontario, homeowner Michael Clewley discovered when he decided to completely revamp his en suite bathroom. Although he hired a professional team to do the job, not everything went according to plan and he came home one day to discover his beautiful new shower hadn’t drained properly and excess water was flowing through the ceiling into his kitchen.
Clewley calls that one of “several technical glitches” but says he would still recommend the company he used because they handled the issues promptly and without argument. “The finished product was worth it,” he says.
Hiring a professional plumber ensures quality work by trained tradespeople who should do the job properly the first time, but who also know how to troubleshoot any issues that may arise.
But with all the horror stories out there, how do you choose a reliable plumber? Research. You can find plenty of stories online (good and bad) but it’s hard to know what is necessarily true. Word-of-mouth can be helpful, but there are other steps you can take to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.
Start by asking around for recommendations or browsing online for local companies. Only pursue qualified plumbers who know codes, rules and regulations from the start.
“Plumbers are licensed tradespeople. They have gone through the training, the apprenticeship and the education to become professionals in their field,” says Rudi Schweitzer from Schweitzer’s Plumbing Centre in St. Agatha, Ontario.
In Canada, Brian Husband, Chief Plumbing Inspector for the City of Victoria and the President of the Plumbing Officials’ Association of British Columbia, says plumbers should have Tradesman’s Qualification certification and the personnel on the job site should be either journeymen plumbers or indentured apprentices supervised by a journeyman plumber.
Make a list of qualified plumbers then ask your top choices for references. Follow through with them and ask previous customers questions. Husband says the best thing you can ask is: “Would you hire them again?” If you really want to dig, call plumbing suppliers and ask about the plumber in question. You might also want to check with the Better Business Bureau.
When you’ve narrowed down the field of plumbers that interest you, it’s time to find out how much your job might cost. “Get several quotes from plumbers and not just from the largest ad in the Yellow Pages,” says Husband.
Sometimes, though, there just isn’t time to do intensive research. Kelly Daynard had a plumbing emergency on a long weekend, so she sought out local companies with 24-hour emergency services. She wanted a written quote and a quick response – and that’s what she got. Daynard called Lotter Brothers in Guelph, Ontario at 9 a.m. and was serviced by 10:30 a.m. She says Bill the plumber and his quick response saved her long weekend.
For his renovation, Clewley started by acquiring quotes from a handful of local companies, some of which had been recommended by friends and some he simply cold-called. In the end, he made his decision based on interactions he had with the plumber, the company’s expertise related to his specific renovation and the plumber’s personality. He says cost was important, but not the main deciding factor.
Do your part to help plumbers provide accurate quotes. “It’s always hard to give a quote sight unseen,” says Schweitzer. “If it’s a big job, a site visit is usually the best option.” He says photos by email can be helpful too. The more information you can provide your plumber, the more accurate a quote he can give you. Smaller jobs are simply billed on a time and material basis.
Before you hire anyone, ask what the company’s schedule looks like and when they can accommodate you, as well as how costs are broken down. Schweitzer says he lists hourly labour rates and materials separately. Other firms may invoice for travel time or charge extra for using special equipment, so clarify this early to avoid unexpected fees. If you agree on a change during the course of the project, expect the total cost to fluctuate accordingly.
To save money, Husband says it’s not unreasonable to help out. “You could offer to do some of the labour yourself, such as digging trenches or breaking up the slab if you are so inclined,” he says. Leave the technical jobs and guidance to the experts, he adds.
Plumbers and homeowners tend to agree that communication from both parties helps keep the process moving smoothly. Clewley says he presented clear information to his plumber, who then carried out his wishes. He says the only misunderstanding or confusion they had during the process was the length of time it would take to complete the project, so it’s worth discussing timelines in detail. Talking openly will help clients understand any emergencies and unexpected glitches that may arise.
That’s not always the case, though. Jackie Middleton from Toronto is a repeat customer with the same company because the plumber sent to her home did quality work, not because of his customer service skills. She says her most recent call was for a minor task. After completing the job, she says “the guy was looking for other things to fix!”
She says the plumber looked in her bathroom cupboards and ran the water in the shower, which was not what she had called him in for. “On previous occasions the same company tried to up-sell us on a warranty. I phoned and complained. If they didn't do good work, I'd go elsewhere.”
This is where being on the same page is beneficial, says Schweitzer. “People can maintain a good relationship with their plumber by being open and straightforward about the budget on a project, communicating any pre-existing plumbing issues in their home and listening to any recommendations regarding product or procedures with their homes plumbing system,” he says.
Next, find the balance between being informed about products and prices and allowing the experts to do their jobs. Husband says it’s great to know what products, quality levels and price ranges are available at big-box stores, but Schweitzer warns there’s more to know – so don’t pick up products without asking your plumber first.
“One of the worst things people do is head off to one of the local ‘big box’ stores and pick up some plumbing fixtures or materials they want installed,” he says. “Plumbers are the people installing, servicing and repairing these items every day. They know what works, what doesn't and can sooner recommend the best item for your particular application. Today there are more products available than ever before, ranging from excellent to very poor in quality. As the saying goes, you usually get what you pay for and it's no different with plumbing products.”
If you want to supply fixtures (either new or used) ask your plumber about them early on. “It can be a time waster if all the parts aren’t there, fixtures are cracked or damaged or if the fixtures don’t conform to CSA (Canadian Standards Association) standards,” says Husband.
Don’t forget the importance of payment options. Flexible financing is especially critical when an emergency overwhelms a homeowner (think flooding), and a quick solution to pay for that important job is essential. Customers want financing options to make them feel in control.
Also, your plumber should obtain all the necessary permits for renovations, but clarify this requirement and ask to see the paperwork. “Often unauthorized plumbing comes back to haunt the home owner,” says Husbands, especially if you’re trying to sell your home. Plumbers should also be able to provide you with warranty information.
Keep all paperwork, documentation and receipts after the work has been completed on your home in case you need to refer back to it.
Finally, technicalities and formalities aside, everyone agrees: once you’ve found a good plumber, don’t let him go.