THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Absolute conflict: Stopped toilet and check ignite dispute

County resident Lynn Ward's Tuesday was off to a bad start. Her first-floor toilet was stopped up– for the second time in a week. The plumber she'd called the week before had said it might be a problem with the septic system, so Ward consulted the Yellow Pages and called Absolute Plumbing, whose full-page ad promises "Expert service when you need it most!" 

She got a call that afternoon from service manager Randy Jacobs, who was at her house and asked her to come home so they could discuss the situation. When she arrived, a truck was pumping the septic tank, and Jacobs pointed out problems with the underground pump and wiring. 

Ward could see that the wiring and control box appeared "badly corroded," and Jacobs told her that the underground location was "a bad set-up." The wiring needed to be moved above ground. Ward agreed, and she claims Jacobs said the operation would cost $3,000-$4,000. 

According to Ward, Jacobs went on to say that since the system hadn't been pumped for many years, sludge might have clogged the distribution box and, potentially, the entire drain field. It wasn't apparent where the distribution box was located, and she says Jacobs described how they would find it. He also told her that if the field was badly clogged, it might require a new drain field, which would increase the cost. Both sides agree that Jacobs did not give her a written estimate. 

Jacobs said they would return the next day– Wednesday, February 21– to perform the work and would call to report on the condition of the distribution box and drain field. There was no call the next day, Ward says, but when she got home she could see that there was an aboveground control box with new wiring. She hoped that meant the distribution box and drain field were okay as well. Although she claims she tried to reach Jacobs the following day, she heard no more from him– until, that is, he and another employee showed up at her house that Saturday morning "to see if things were working" and to find out whether she wanted them to do the rest of the work. 

Ward then learned that Jacobs had done nothing to locate the distribution box or gauge the condition of the drain field. Since it seemed like that needed to be done, she says, she gave them the go-ahead. But she was "astounded" by what she claims happened next: Jacobs presented her with a bill for $4,886 for the work that had been done so far and "was insistent" that she write a check on the spot. When she protested, he said she could postdate it by a week. 

Ward was even more upset because she had assumed that this "extra" work had been included in Jacobs' original estimate, but now he told her that it could add another $3000 to $4000. Reluctantly, she postdated her check a week and gave it to him. 

When Ward– who is a friend of mine– told me about the situation, I urged her to get a second opinion. In the meantime, she stopped payment on her check and instructed Absolute to do no more work.

I spoke with Jacobs, who portrayed his Saturday visit as having just happened to be in Ward's neighborhood over the weekend when he decided to stop by and collect on the bill. He explained the absence of a written estimate by saying that he hadn't known what the actual price would be. He also said he'd quoted $5,000 as the upper limit, not $4,000, and claimed he'd made it clear that figure only covered the rewiring and control box.

When I asked about two complaints that have been filed against Absolute with the Better Business Bureau, Jacobs replied, "Jesus Christ could be president, and people would still complain." 

Stay tuned for the results of the second opinion and to learn how– or whether– Ward and Absolute resolve their expensive dispute. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.