Play along with me. Who's paid more, a New York doctor or a New York plumber? In the case of Buck Barba of Assured Plumbing in Patchogue, the plumber wins. Or, I should say, his customers lose.
Tom Lutz of Greenlawn, New York, contacted me after his fiancée, Sharon Block, was charged $840 by Barba to fix a leaking toilet. Barba said Block's toilet needed a "major rebuild" and cited his price. Yet, just 90 minutes later, after replacing about $40 worth of parts (float, tank seal, and filling pipe), he was done. Block elected not to argue the amount then and there. Instead, she paid with Lutz's Discover card, and he challenged the charge the next day. First Barba's company, then Discover, denied Lutz's request for an adjustment, citing Block's signature on the work order.
But the real story seemed to be elsewhere: either Barba overstated the problem and should have corrected the price, or he was taking advantage of Block. As a consumer advocate, I believe customers can never sign away their rights to question a bill. It's just too easy for a contractor to gouge a customer who isn't an expert and needs to make a quick decision. As Ronald Reagan taught us, we sometimes need to trust…and then verify.
My first call to Assured was answered by Tricia Snowden, the office manager, who told me, "We charge a flat rate, not by the hour." I responded that, no matter how they label the numbers, the price was still outrageous. I called another plumber in Greenlawn, who told me he'd do the job for "$300 and change," and the local Lowe's store said they'd replace the entire toilet for $220, including labor. That puts Barba's flat-rate premium at about $600. Still, he and Assured wouldn't budge.
Armed with these figures, I contacted Discover. The company defended its denial at first, but eventually agreed that Lutz "may have been overcharged" and opened the cash spigot to the tune of $640.
Recovered by On Your Side: $640
Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006). You can read his journal on AARP.org, where there's also a new On Your Side column every two weeks.
TIPS for Negotiating a Repair
1. Get at least two bids. Though having no toilet is inconvenient, getting competing bids might save enough to cover a hotel stay.
2. Pay only for time and materials. Agree to an hourly rate for labor, not a fixed price. Pay no more than retail for parts—or purchase them yourself.
3. Don't pay unless satisfied. You're in a much stronger position if you have the money and the worker is the one trying to seal the deal.
Submit your own question for consideration in a future On Your Side column.