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May 20, 2004 By Connie Thompson KOMO 4 NEWS 

SEATTLE - A growing trend could have you paying a shocking bill next time you need an electrician or a plumber.

It has to do with the way they price their work. Part of the problem is you have no way of knowing their pricing until after the plumber or electrician is at your door.

It's called flat rate pricing. Rates are pre-set based on the job, regardless of how simple or complex.

Mike Severance of Seattle contacted Buyer Beware after being charged more for simple repairs on a water heater than if he'd gone out and bought a brand new one.

It Started With An Emergency

Mike's water heater was leaking all over the basement floor. His grandchildren were staying in the home and there was no hot water.

"I had a couple of small kids in the house, I needed hot water. So, I looked in the Yellow Pages and saw a full page ad for this company. They sounded really good," he said.

The company was PLUMB SERVE. It offers same day service with flat rate pricing and "No Surprises."

Mike says the plumber arrived in about 90 minutes. The plumber had him sign an invoice. Then the plumber told Mike he need two new thermostats, new water flex connectors, and brass nipples which connect the flexors to the water tank top.

Allowing for the $75.50 "appearance fee," Mike says he figured the total bill would be around $150.

But when the plumber handed him the invoice he was shocked. The repair came to $802.93. Mike insists that's more than he authorized before the work began.

"And I was a little irritated," Mike said.

He was even more irritated when he later discovered the water tank was leaking again. Mike says all along, the leak had been from the top of the tank and he was able to stop the leak by simply tightening a nut. He feels he was not only overcharged, but he thinks the plumber performed unnecessary repairs.

Disputing the Bill

Since Mike charged the bill to his VISA card, he disputed the bill. He took pictures and, at the request of his credit card company, got a quote from a second local plumber who charges by parts and labor.

"To do the same work that plumber had done was just under $140," he said.

KOMO 4 News confirmed the second plumber's price, which actually came to $145 plus tax. That's a difference of more than $600.

Mike later discovered he could have done the same job himself for less than $100 in parts.

He challenged PLUMB SERVE through his attorney.

The company's response? "That their charge was legitimate," explained Mike.

That's exactly what PLUMB SERVE told Buyer Beware.

"Mr. Severance called a company that prides itself in same-day service with licensed plumbers," said manager Gary Jessen. "We subscribe to a pricing service and provide flat-rate prices to our customers before we do any work. As with any company, those prices must include overhead charges, labor and materials."

Jessen added: "We reserve the right to set our own prices. The price Mr. Severance was charged was correct according to our pricing guide."

Other Complaints

Records at the State Attorney General's office show PLUMB SERVE and its partner company ELECTRO SERVE have a history of complaints from consumers alleging excessive pricing, unauthorized repairs, and misrepresentation.

This is also not the first time the company has come to the attention of KOMO 4 News.

In a previous Buyer Beware report, a consumer in Everett was charged $431.43 to have a power problem fixed on a Sunday. After signing the authorization, the technician simply reset the Ground Fault Interrupter. That's the red button in her bathroom power outlet.

Despite the complaints, it's important to point out there is no indication the level of complaints against PLUMB SERVE and ELECTRO SERVE are any higher than those against other flat-rate plumbing and electrical repair companies.

By phone, Gary Jessen told KOMO 4 News, "We are more than happy to settle and come to a compromise, but Mr. Severance has not responded. He still has a two year warranty on the work."

For now, Mike's VISA card company is crediting his account. The $800 charge could reappear on his bill if PLUMB SERVE provides a satisfactory explanation within the 90 days his credit card company allows.

No Price Regulation

Keep in mind, there is no law that regulates what plumbers or electricians can charge you.

A third company we contacted quoted just over $300 for the same repair on Mike's hot water heater.

Don't wait for an emergency. Talk to friends, ask questions, and do your homework now when you don't need the help.

Don't base your decision solely on the first or biggest ad in the Yellow Pages 
Never sign a contract before making sure you understand the exact work 
Make sure the exact price is listed 
Ask questions if you don't understand 
To avoid disputes about quoted rates after the fact, spell out the price on the invoice in letters next to the numbers before you sign, like you would with a check

Remember, flat-rate does not always mean best rate.

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