Woman unhappy with 'free' plumbing estimate


This is a good lesson for anyone hiring a plumber, electrician or any contractor. This woman says she only wanted a free estimate, but the plumber went ahead with the work, could not fix the problem, and she was charged.

Laura Rankins of San Pablo showed us how much water was leaking from her bathtub faucet -- it was more than just a drip and it wouldn't stop.

"I said, 'Oh, no. I better call a plumber,' because I didn't want a higher water bill," said Rankins.

She found a big ad in the Yellow Pages: Preferred Plumbing and Drain was offering free estimates with "no extra charges." It sounded good; so she called them up.

"I said, 'You guys do free estimates right?' They said, 'Yes,'" said Rankins.

The company sent out a plumber and she showed him the leak. Then she says she left him there to prepare the free estimate.

"When I came back he had already took everything apart. He said, 'I can't fix this.' I said, 'Oh no, you can't fix it?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Well, what's the problem?'" said Rankins.

The plumber said he tried putting in new seals, but they didn't stop the leak. This would be a much bigger job.

"He said, 'Well, we're going to have to cut your bathroom wall open.' I said, 'How much is that going to cost?' He said, 'That's going to run you anywhere from $650 to $700.' I said, 'Oh, my God,'" said Rankins.

But a bigger surprise was when the plumber handed her a bill for $165. He said it was the charge for putting in new seals, even though they didn't work. So Rankins gave him $100 cash, plus a $65 check, and the man left. That's when she got upset.

"When I closed the door, I said, 'Wait a minute.' I said, 'He never gave me my free estimate, he just gave me a bill,'" said Rankins.

She called Preferred Plumbing and the company offered to apply the $165 toward the cost of doing that big repair job.

"'You would owe us another $475.' That's when I said, 'No. I want my money back,'" said Rankins.

The company agreed to refund her money, however Rankins says she waited nine days and when a check didn't arrive, she contacted 7 On Your Side. Rankins tells us she never authorized any work, she just wanted her free estimate.

"Our technician did let her know the minimum charge for us to take apart the faucet and repair or try to fix it. So we did notify her of the charges prior to doing any of the work," said Bryan Graves, the co-owner of Preferred Plumbing & Drain.

Graves told us his technician received a verbal OK from Rankins to put in new seals, though he did not obtain her signed authorization.

"Our policy is to get verbal approval and then get a signature, which he did not do," said Graves.

However, Graves said because she was unhappy, Preferred Plumbing sent her a refund check immediately, even before 7 On Your Side contacted the company.

"I didn't need to have the wall taken out at all," said Rankins.

Rankins hired a different plumber. This one put in a new washer, the leak has now stopped, and Rankins did get a full refund from Preferred Plumbing.

Graves says he doubts that a simple washer will stop her leak for long, but he says he just wants a happy customer.

"I do apologize for her poor experience. That's not what we want. It's not what we ever want. We make mistakes sometimes and we will always make it right," said Graves.

State law requires contractors to provide a written contract signed by you before starting any work. And you don't have to pay until the work is finished and the problem is resolved. The owner of Preferred Plumbing tells us he's changed his policy because of this report. He will now provide refunds within 24 hours of the request.

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