Contact 6: Undercover investigation looks into plumbers

FOX6's Contact 6 took their hidden cameras and performed an undercover investigation to see if you really can afford to shop around when you need a plumber, and how to find the price that is right for you.

Master Plumber Gary Godhe assisted in the undercover investigation. Since 1997, Godhe has owned Big Dog Plumbing, and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) recommended him for the job. Godhe says every time he walks through the door for a job, he assumes there is a camera on him.

For this investigation, Sara, a FOX6 producer, calls for estimates after Godhe cut the flapper valve on her toilet and shortened the chain. To replace those parts, including the labor, Godhe estimates a total bill of under $100. Contact 6 took the time, and paid the money for trip charges for three plumbers to take a look at Sara's toilet - two that Contact 6 has received viewer complaints about (Flat Rate Plumbing and Blau Plumbing), and the third was Sara's choice, selected at random. Three cameras were rolling in Sara's bathroom, recording everything the plumbers had to say, starting with Flat Rate Plumbing.

Sara showed the Flat Rate plumber to the problem, and from the time he lift's the toilet's cover, it takes just 40 seconds to make a diagnosis. The plumber suggests a rebuild of the toilet's insides, or purchasing a brand-new toilet. The plumber quotes the rebuild at around $375, saying the toilet is an off-brand, and mentioning that he's never seen one like that before.

The plumber from Blau Plumbing provided a diagnosis in 47 seconds. This plumber recommends a new valve for the toilet, and working on the water line, replacing the flapper, and overhauling the inside of the toilet. The plumber mentions this would be a Class One overhaul, and would run between $283 to $314.

The third company that Sara chose at random was Andersen Plumbing. The plumber took a look at the toilet, and two minutes later, says he has the parts available to make the repairs. This plumber provides a quote of just $20 for the parts, and $130 total for the repairs - close to the $100 Godhe said it would cost, and considerably less than the prices quoted by Flat Rate and Blau.

Contact 6 asked Flat Rate about being the most expensive out of the three, and company president Les Gumieny sent a two-page written statement saying customers should understand the overhead involved with providing a 24-hour, seven-day per week operation, with service to six different counties, plus a fleet of over 20 service trucks, fully stocked at all times, with virtually all replacement parts necessary to complete a service call. Gumieny said they recommended a full toilet overhaul even though just a few parts were broken because "these preventative measures often eliminate return visits, which ultimately saves our clients money."

Blau sent the actual plumber who provided the quote, who has worked for Blau for 34 years. He says it's best to replace parts with brass parts that last longer, and like Flat Rate, says replacing all of the parts together is better, even if they're not broken yet. "Based on the years I've been doing it, I still, to this day, would recommend the same thing, because of the way parts wear down over time. It's going to cost more in the long run," Mickey Golner said.

Both Flat Rate and Blau offered Sara a completely new toilet - Flat Rates runs $739, and Blau's totals $975. These are brand-new toilets, for less than the other companies overhaul repair costs.

The moral of the story: it is best to find a plumber before you need one! Some, like Blau and Flat Rate work off of a menu pricing system, which means, you pay a set price for the type of job performed, no matter how much time it takes. Contact 6 also recommends always getting an estimate before having any work performed.