FEARLESS CONSUMER- Tapped out: $493 faucet plumb crazy

"I try to be careful," Downing Smith's email began, "but if I let my guard down, I seem to get taken." But did he? After talking to the business in question, Virginia Plumbing, I'm inclined to think that the real culprit is every consumer's nemesis– poor communication– rather than bad business practices.

Smith called Virginia Plumbing when his mother's kitchen faucet "began leaking badly." The company had done work for Smith in the past, both at his own house and in rental property he owns, and he had been "more or less satisfied." He wasn't at all satisfied, however, when he saw the bill: $493 to replace the entire faucet.

"Even if the entire faucet had needed to be replaced," he stated, "you can buy a good quality one at Lowe's for $200. Putting in a new kitchen faucet is not rocket science."

And although the new faucet had a lifetime warranty, he continued, "They didn't give her any paperwork for the warranty or anything showing what brand and model they had installed." Furthermore, he claims that when he called to complain, the employee he spoke to said that "this was what they charged everybody."

"At this point," he reports, "I totally lost it and told her if their regular charge for fixing a leaky faucet is $500, they would never get any more business from me."

I spoke with Tim Cotten, Virginia Plumbing's general manager, who stoutly defended the price ($48 for the dispatch call and $443 for materials and labor). The faucet, he explained, is a "very nice, heavy-duty faucet you can't even buy at Lowe's" because it's made exclusively for the plumbing industry. As for the warranty, it's superior to those that come with fixtures bought by the consumer, because it's backed by Virginia Plumbing's "premium, in-home service."

Cotten said that Smith's concern about the missing paperwork is "legitimate," and promised to be sure it was delivered. As for Smith's complaint about the price, however, he was adamant that Virginia Plumbing had charged the "normal, appropriate price" for a faucet and installation.

Employees are required to provide an exact price, he said– not an estimate– before they begin the work. According to Virginia Plumbing's Yellow Pages ad, they've named and trademarked this as their "Straight Forward Pricing" policy. At my request, Smith asked his mother whether the employee had told her the price would be $493 before he began working, and reported back that he had.

"But my mom does not know anything about home repairs," he says, "and they took advantage of her."

Cotten suggested a solution: Smith could have specified, when he requested the service, that he would be the one to approve or decline the repairs after hearing what the job would cost. Because he wasn't present when the work was being done, however, the employee had no reason to think that anyone besides Smith's mother was involved in the transaction.

When I spoke to Cotten, he volunteered to call Smith and discuss his concerns. The two men spoke the next day, and Cotten says the conversation was amicable. He would have called Smith last month– after his complaint call– but claims Smith was so upset that the office manager, who took the call, was unable to get Smith's name.

Once again, a dispute comes down to poor communication, which has been a common theme of this column since I started writing it 10 years ago. This is writ large in my own life right now, as I'm remodeling my house; so far, I've only had to dispute one bill.

If I keep on learning from my readers– by agreeing on the scope of each job and getting a solid idea of the price before anyone gets started– it'll be the only one.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.