Beware the “free safety inspection” from your plumber

By | April 14, 2010

[Read the whole series of postings about Winters Plumbing here.]

We hired Winters Plumbing about six months ago to replace our heating system (old ducts in basement needed to be removed due to peeling asbestos, and while we were at it we went ahead and replaced the furnace as well).  After the job was done, we enrolled in the Winters “Service Partner” program, which (for a $12.95 monthly fee) includes priority service, an annual inspection and tune-up, and a 15% discount on all jobs.

About a month ago, we got a voicemail message from winters asking us to call back to schedule our “safety inspection.”  I thought this meant it was time for our annual tune-up, so I called back and scheduled it.

The plumber showed up at the arranged time, toured our house and basement without actually doing anything to our plumbing or heating system, and proceeded to quote to my wife prices for a long list of things we didn’t actually need, e.g., replacing our humidifier pad and our water heater, neither of which was due for replacement, or adding a waster filter to our humidifier, which was never mentioned by Winters as something we might need when they installed it just six months ago.

For the one thing we did need, a replacement for a broken toilet handle, he quoted a price of $238.  Yes, that’s right, $238 to spend less than ten minutes installing a part that costs less than $5 at The Home Depot, a part which the plumber probably had sitting out in his van when he came to do our inspection.  With our 15% discount, it would have been a “bargain” at “only” $202.  The very same day he quoted this price to me, Winters was advertising on their Web site a special — $99 during business hours on any Thursday or Friday to replace your toilet handle, do a dye test to check the toilet for leaks, and inspect the toilet for other issues.  In other words, as a service plan customer with priority service, I was quoted a price over $100 higher than the price being offered to new customers.

I sent a nasty letter to my contact at Winters about what had happened.  That was about a month ago, but because Passover and such, I didn’t get a chance to speak with him about it until today. Here is what he told me:

  • This wasn’t my annual tune-up.  Rather, when business is slow, Winters calls their service plan customers and offers them free “safety inspections.”  My contact at Winters pretty much admitted that the “safety inspection” was really an opportunity to try to sell stuff to the customer.
  • The fee for repairing the toilet handle is high because they don’t actually want to send a plumber out for a job that small, so they charge a lot to discourage people from calling a plumber to do only that one little thing.
  • He agreed that it was less than ideal for to quote to a service plan customer a price of $238 for a service that was being offered to new customers for $99.  He said that the company would try to do a better job in the future of making sure their plumbers are aware of currently available promotions, but he didn’t say explicitly that they would quote the promotional price.
  • He also agreed with me that it would have been much better if the plumber had offered to replace the toilet handle on the spot for $20 or $25, a substantial mark-up.  That would have been a win-win scenario — it would have made me happy because I wouldn’t have to take the time to shlep to the store to get a new handle and then install it, and it would have made Winters happy because they would have made a little money from the visit.  He said Winters would address this in their training, although again he didn’t promise outright that things like this would be handled differently in the future.

I told my contact that Winters needed to do a much better job making it clear to customers exactly what was being offered when they called to offer “free safety inspections.”  I also told him that my wife and I had no interest in any more “free safety inspections,” so we would appreciate it if they would flag our account to indicate that we should not be called about them in the future.  We’ll see how that goes.

There is one more thing I did not tell my Winters contact, because I really didn’t feel like arguing with him about it: there is no legitimate justification for charging $238 to replace a toilet handle.  It’s an absurdly inflated, usurious price, and the explanation he offered for it is totally bogus.

Consider this… We recently bought a new refrigerator, and the fitting at the end of our ice maker feed line had to be replaced.  We called Mr. Fix-It in Brookline and asked them to come do it.  They quoted us a price of $135 over the phone, did the job the next morning, took only slightly longer than it takes to replace a toilet handle, and ended up charging us only $110.

If Mr. Fix-It can charge only $110 for a job of this size and still make a profit, then you can’t tell me with a straight face there are legitimate business reasons why Winters needs to charge $238 to replace a toilet handle.  It’s just a rip-off.

Part of me wants to cancel our Winters service plan enrollment over this incident, but I’m reluctant to do that because our new heating system is fully warrantied through Winters for five years, so we’ll obviously be calling them if it needs any repairs, and I don’t want them to drag their feet if that happens because we aren’t on their service plan.

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6 thoughts on “Beware the “free safety inspection” from your plumber

  1. Enrique Adame | Plumber Cyrpess TX

    I’m sorry to hear about your incident, no one deserves to be treated that way especially by a big company. It’s sad that big companies think they can do that and get away with it. Hope your AC doesn’t break down and you don’t ever have to call them back ever again. Have a good one.

    Reply
  2. ken

    The person who initialy wrote this article is a nut. Get a life. From what I understand, he is a lawyer who makes approx. $800 / hr. He is the real ripp off!

    Reply
    1. jik Post author

      I’m not a lawyer. My job doesn’t pay me anywhere near that kind of money. From what I understand, you’re a liar.

      You’re also anonymous, which I’m not and have never been on the Internet, where I’ve been active for well over two decades. So whose opinions are readers in a better position to judge?

      You’re also posting from an IP address in Boston, so for all we know, you could be an employee of Winters Plumbing trying to defend your employer by falsely defaming me.

      Feel free to prove me wrong by identifying yourself.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Winters Plumbing disappoints « Something better to do

  4. Camilla

    I recently called Winters out for two problems; #1 was that our kitchen fawcett had worked loose from where it was mounted at the counter top, and the space underneath was too narrow to fit any of our wrenches; #2 was a clogged insinkerator.

    The plumber spent almost a half hour looking through his book for the appropriate billing code for tightening my fawcett. He didn’t find anything applicable, and decided not to bill for that part of the job. When he was done, he informed me that he was obligated by policy to inspect all the house plumbing for problems, and seemed somewhat incredulous when I told him that there were none. (I allowed him to go look at the water heater, because it didn’t bother me to let him do so, and it seemed to satisfy his desire to play by the rules.)

    Total cost was $225 (for the insinkerator, which was actually nastily clogged and took a while to fix), minus a $25 coupon that I used. I don’t think I got a terribly good deal, but I’m not dissatisfied.

    Where Winters is a good deal is where the flat fee per task works for you. We had them out on a previous occasion to deal with a slow drain, where the problem was a long horizontal run that’s mechanically troublesome. It took two guys all morning, all for the same $225 fee.

    Reply
    1. jik Post author

      About that “flat fee per task” thing… Am I remembering wrong that plumbers used to charge parts + labor by the hour (in half hour increments, usually)? Nowadays it seems like everybody does the flat-fee thing. Why is that? Charging parts + labor seemed more fair to both the workman and the homeowner.

      Reply

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