As with any contractor you hire, there are practical things you need to establish before the work begins. Here are key questions to ask a plumber:
1) Are you licensed?
This is the big one. Never, ever forget to ask this question, and don't just take the plumber's word for it. Many operate without a license, but many homeowners assume every plumber needs to have one, so this question is always worth asking. Being licensed means the plumber is registered with a governing body at the state or local level. You can look up licensing rules for your own area at the Angie's List licensing page.
What's the problem with a great plumber who isn't licensed? His work may not pass inspection, and you'll have little recourse because you chose to hire him despite that fact. Always ask.
2) Is this the total cost?
Most professional plumbers offer free estimates to customers — be wary of any who want to give you one over the phone, however. Most will come to check out the job before they start work. Once your prospective plumber has had a chance to look over the job and provides you with a number for cost, ask if what he has quoted you includes materials, labor and a contingency for any problems. Some estimates look great on paper but only include the basic cost of materials and will skyrocket as a job goes on.
3) Is this an hourly or flat rate?
Many plumbers build clauses into contracts that say homeowners will bear any reasonable costs to complete the job. When getting an estimate, make sure to ask if the total you're being quoted is a flat rate — one that won't change because of labor costs — or if your plumber is using an hourly rate plus the cost of materials. The problem with the second option is that while materials are a fixed price, if the job runs long, the cost will keep going up while you pay for labor. Make sure you know what you're getting before you sign a contract.
4) When do you want payment?
Always ask when the plumber expects to be paid, and how much of the total cost he wants upfront. If your potential plumber asks for 100 percent of the cost before the job starts, walk away. Some will use a system of "milestones": Once a certain piece of work is completed, you will be required to pay a certain percentage. Some will use time: After a specified number of weeks, you will pay a certain portion of the total cost. Milestones are often better since payment is only given out upon the completion of certain tasks. Time payments can work, but if the plumber works slowly, you may be paying too much for too little.
5) Who's doing the work?
Professional plumbing companies often employ more than just one plumber, and for large projects they may use a team of laborers. Always ask if the plumber giving you the quote is the one doing the work. If he says no, ask who will be completing the job and what level of experience and qualifications he has. If you feel uncomfortable with the answer or if the plumber can't provide details, you may want to keep looking.
6) Do you clean up your mess?
This seems like it should have an obvious answer, but some plumbing companies don't clean up when they're finished, leaving a homeowner with old parts, boxes for new materials and a giant, dirty mess. Always ask if cleanup is included as part of a quote, and if not, ask why. Some companies may charge for cleanup in addition to completing a job, and the cost may be worth it — but never forget to ask.
7) What if something breaks?
Before signing any contract, ask what kind of guarantee or warranty comes with the plumber's work. Some will promise to come back within a year and fix any problems; some will offer service only on certain fixtures in a bathroom or under certain conditions if a leak occurs. Make sure that any kind of guarantee or warranty is in writing, and that the contractor is bonded and insured.
While hiring a plumber can be a daunting task, asking these seven questions will help make sure you get someone who knows what they're doing, does good work and won't leave you with a half-finished project.
What do you ask when hiring a plumber? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally posted Jan. 14, 2013.