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Multiple calls lead to plumber's bill dispute

The Baltimore Sun

Oddly dispiriting as it can be, I often hum "You Can't Always Get What You Want" because truer words cannot be spoken about life as a consumer.

First-time homeowner Addie Compton might be singing along with the Rolling Stones now, too, after wrestling with the plumbing problem she had back on Jan. 18. An upstairs toilet in her Violetville home got clogged and leaked wastewater through the living room ceiling.

As most of us would do in that situation, the 35-year-old archivist started calling plumbing companies. Bear in mind, this took place about 7:30 p.m. - well after normal work hours. Three or four companies said they might be able to send someone over. One was Robert's Plumbing & Heating of Baltimore.

"We then waited about 2 1/2 hours," Compton said. "Robert's Plumbing called to confirm that we still needed a plumber about an hour and a half into the wait. Since no other plumber had shown up at that point, we stated we did."

Lo and behold, a Robert's Plumbing van pulled up onto the street about an hour later and parked - just as another plumbing company rang Compton's back door.

"Since the other plumbers came to the door first, we told them to start work," Compton said. "When the plumber from Robert's Plumbing came to the front door literally a few minutes after the other plumbers, I stated that another company had arrived first, and I then apologized for his trouble."

To Compton's surprise, the technician from Robert's walked back to his van, came back to her door and informed her that she would be charged $135 for having him show up.

"If he told me beforehand that there was a fee, I would have paid it, no problem," Compton said. "But I did most of the calling that night, and no fee was ever mentioned. One company mentioned a fee, and I know it wasn't Robert's."

Robert's sent Compton a bill for the charge, but she has refused to pay. The company is threatening to send the bill to a collection agency.

"I've never heard of this fee and no one I know has ever heard of this fee." Compton said. "Is this even legal?"

Quite legal, yes.

"It's fairly common practice for tradesmen to have a to-the-door charge," said Harry Loleas, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which handles most plumbing complaints in the state - but not those over money.

Many plumbers, electricians and HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) companies employ a to-the-door charge. During normal hours, the fee is usually about $75 to $100 to have a technician show up. The cost of the actual work performed is added on.

Expect to pay more if the call for service requires an after-hours visit, said retired contractor Larry LeDoyen, who used to sit on the state's HVACR board.

"You have to remember that the owner of that company has to pay someone time and a half or double time to work that after-hours shift," LeDoyen said. "That plumber was probably watching TV or spending time with his family doing personal things. He has to get up, get dressed, get his equipment together and drive to this person's home. It's not because he wants to, but it's his job. But somebody's got to pay that guy. People don't think about that.

"A lot of people call six or seven companies for an emergency and hire the first person who shows up," LeDoyen said. "That's not a good way to hire a contractor. You should call several, but the first question you should ask is, 'Can you make it?' The second question is, 'How much do you charge?'"

Most companies inform you of this fee. Some might not. It's often your responsibility to ask.

In Compton's case, she wasn't aware of the existence of such a charge to even ask about it. She swears that Robert's never mentioned the fee during either call, but does admit that in her state of alarm, she might not have been listening carefully.

Robert Whitley, owner of Robert's, swears that he told Compton both times about the fee.

We weren't there, so we'll never know who's right.

We do know that Robert's billing statement shows that Compton and her partner, Rebecca Danton, were charged $135 for a "service call fee" and that a note scribbled below it says, "Caton's beat us to it!" At the bottom of the bill is Compton's signature, which she confirmed is hers.

"I remember I took this call," Whitley said. "I was working that night, too, and we were busy. We try to weed out the calls that can wait till morning, so I remember calling her to verify if she still needed us. I tell all our customers that it's going to be $135 minimum for me to come. If it turns out to be a simple job where I just have to cable the toilet or unblock the blockage, that's the final charge. If we have to take the toilet out, we have to charge more."

That evening, Whitley said he paid technician Michael Rich about $40 an hour to show up at Compton's home at 9 p.m. The $135 to-the-door fee pays for the technician's salary, insurance, gas and other expenses, Whitley said. To get service after 10 p.m., Robert's charges $375 to show.

"We try to be fair," Whitley said. "If she had called us to say that somebody else came out and my guy was already halfway out, I wouldn't have cared. My guys work 50 to 60 hours any given week. In January when it's freezing, they can work 70 to 80 hours. I have to pay them double time just to keep them motivated."

But Compton said Caton's Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning beat Robert's only by minutes.

"I didn't have time to call Robert's to cancel," Compton said. "Caton's didn't tell me they were coming. They just showed up. I guess we just assumed that no one would show."

A costly assumption, unfortunately.

LeDoyen advises that once one company confirms that they will show, it's wise to cancel the other companies. "It's unfair to the other contractors," LeDoyen said. "You're wasting their time and money."

Compton has a few not-so-great choices. She can call the Attorney General's Office to file a complaint. She can call the Better Business Bureau, a group which Robert's belongs to, and ask for mediation. I did ask Whitley if he would budge on the fee, but he's standing firm. Perhaps the AG and BBB will have better luck.

If not, Compton can take Robert's to small claims court once a lien is placed on her mortgage for not paying her bill. Or she can pay up before Whitley sends her bill to a collection agency.

"I'm not that big of a [rhymes with gas-whole]," Whitley said. "I haven't done that yet because I want to give her a chance to pay."

Compton said she will try once more to negotiate with Robert's about the fee. Whether she's successful or not, Compton said she will "know better next time should I ever need a contractor again." And at the very least, Compton said, her toilet problem was fixed - at a cost of $400 for Caton's and, possibly, $135 for Robert's should she decide to pay.

Which goes to show that if you try, sometimes you can get what you need and what you want - but it won't always be the way you want it and it'll likely cost ya.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming

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