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On Your Side

A Raw Deal on a Sewer Line

A second opinion saves $3,000 on plumbing job.

Michael Marne was standing in the basement of his home in Mount Pleasant, Pa., when the plumber from Mr. Rooter delivered the diagnosis. "He said that if I didn't take care of the clogged line in the yard right away, my basement could fill up with sewage," Marne recalls. "The guy said he'd have to bring out a backhoe, and it would take two or three days." With just four days to go before his wedding, the plumber's words were the last thing Marne wanted to hear. And then came the price: $4,560.

The only good news was that the crew could get started the next day. It seemed like a lot of money to Marne, but he knew that heavy equipment didn't come cheap. If the job took more than 20 hours to complete, he mused, it might be a fair price. Reluctantly, he signed the work order.

Imagine Marne's surprise when, less than 24 hours later, the same plumber declared the job complete after four men with shovels — and no backhoe — had labored for just over seven hours. While he was happy to have the line repaired, given that the job took far less time than estimated and hadn't involved heavy equipment, Marne asked for an adjustment on the price — a request that was refused. So he paid.
 
But the transaction bothered him. To make sure he wasn't off base, Marne asked two other plumbers to estimate the job. They came back with quotes of $1,400 and $1,200.

That's when Michael's mom, Mary Marne, contacted On Your Side. Regular readers of this column will remember that we've taken on a price-gouging plumber before — a previous case involved an independent pipe jockey who diagnosed a broken ball float and seal as a toilet in need of an $840 "major rebuild," but then finished the job in 90 minutes having replaced less than $50 worth of parts. What's doubly dangerous to consumers is that plumbers and other mechanics can place a lien on your home if you refuse to pay.

Given the amount of money involved, I decided to go straight to the top. Mr. Rooter is a national chain, and soon I was on the phone with its president, Mary Kennedy Thompson; describing her as an enthusiastic defender/promoter of her company would be an understatement. (I have to give her credit, too, for her willingness to take my call. Some executives don't.)

After I explained the situation, she immediately shaved Marne's bill by $2,000. And with a little jawboning I got her to match the $1,400 estimate Marne got elsewhere, a savings of $3,160. Thompson still insisted that the original $4,560 price was "fair" and that she didn't think scare tactics had been used. When I asked her how four men toiling with spades could be worth $600 an hour, she explained that plumbers get paid a lot, and that for the work they did on the job she didn't think $150 per shoveler was out of line.
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