A good plumber is for life, if you can find one

You know the boom is back when plumbers and electricians won’t take your calls

Desperately seeking a plumber. Photograph: Getty Images

There are a few ways to know we are back in boom territory. There are cranes dotted across the cityscapes. People are paying upwards of €30 for a round of drinks (for two). Coffee consumption is rocketing. But perhaps the biggest sign is the difficulty in getting a decent tradesman. Take this conversation I had with a plumber recently:

Me: The boiler is broken, so there’s no heating in the house. It’s a bit of an emergency so if you could come tonight, that would be a massive help.

Him: Oh, it won’t be tonight, now.

Me: Oh, okay. How about this week?


Him: (does 30 seconds of mental arithmetic). It’ll be week after next before I get to you.

Me: You mean, in about two weeks?

Him: Oh sorry, I thought it was Sunday. No I mean, the week after the week after next week. Probably the end of that week.

I grudgingly had to respect him for his honesty: the first plumber I’d rung had sworn he would get to it “as soon as he humanly could”. Four days later, there was still no sign of him.

Panicked by weather reports heralding the onset of sub-zero temperatures, I rang four more plumbers in a hurry. The first two plumbers didn’t answer the call, and didn’t respond to voicemail.

'As rare as gold dust'

Remember about 15 years ago, when good, reliable and prompt workmen were as rare as gold dust? With everyone on the move, renting out second properties, renovating and upgrading their houses, one thing rang true: it was impossible to get a builder, plumber or electrician for small jobs. Workmen were so busy and in demand that people with any other kind of job wondered more than once why they hadn’t chosen a trade.

Economic peaks come and go, but the fact is: a good and reliable tradesman is for life. Women it seems, need someone they can trust to show up and not rip them off more than men. A British survey revealed that women are routinely quoted a higher charge than men for the same job.

Researchers discovered there is a “gender lottery” in the way some tradesmen respond to calls for help. They found 20 per cent of women calling on the services of a plumber, electrician, builder or locksmith for simple emergency work faced a bigger bill than men with the same problem.

In some parts of Britain, the gender gap in price quotes is sizeable, with plumbers in London levying an extra £10 to £15 on nearly half of all female customers.

While men were quoted an average of £37.50 for routine work, the figure for women was £47.50. And in the worst case discovered during the research, a plumber in Glasgow quoted a female caller £40 an hour – 60 per cent more than the male caller who hours earlier had been quoted £25 an hour.

Of course, a #NotAllTradesmen caveat needs to be built into this conceit. Yet an experience a couple of years ago did make me pause for thought.

First mistake

With mould growing in my tenant's bathroom, I contacted a 'handyman' I had found on Google. This was my first mistake, effectively sticking a pin in the internet. It wasn't long before I realised my greenness about all things plumbing-related, was fast becoming a liability. Soon, the mould situation turned into a lack of water in the apartment, which then in turn became a boiler problem, a sink problem, a flooring problem.

Every phone call with this particular tradesman was the same: him reporting, apologetically, another catastrophe that needed immediate addressing. In-built into each conversation were vague, threatening instances of what might happen if the problem wasn’t fixed immediately. Pay up now, he said time and time again, and avoid paying out a lot more down the line. The place was a full-blown disaster zone and felt so down the rabbit hole that the only course of action seemed to be to keep going. So keep going I did. I sought a second opinion: the second tradesman was partly in agreement with the first on a few technical things. Backed into a corner, I acquiesced and opened my wallet, to the tune of several thousand euro.

Two months later, the bathroom was in worse shape than ever, prompting me to call a third tradesman. I told him the entire saga; he doubled over incredulously. He took a look at the itemised invoice, and pointed out that dehumidifiers had been rented for €175 a day. “You can rent them for €25,” he said. An extractor fan, billed for €190, turned out to cost €13. And so it went.

'Utterly gullible'

Perhaps this episode had little to do with the fact I was a woman, and everything to do with the fact that I was utterly gullible.

In the years since though, I have picked up some fail-safe pieces of advice when it comes to choosing tradespeople. Ask for evidence of qualifications; never hire a man who comes to the job wearing cleaner clothes than you; never, ever listen when someone says ‘you won’t get that kind of price elsewhere’; don’t use a company without a landline; and give those who like under-the-counter, cash payments a wide berth.

It seems to work.

On the recommendation of a Facebook friend, a plumber came over to fix the aforesaid boiler last week. He took a peek, tutted a little. He was a man of few words. This, I've found, is a good thing.

“Is it a big job?” I fretted.

“No, not at all,” he replied. Ten minutes, a few tweaks, a new valve, and a smallish sum later, we were back in business.

Sure, there are cowboys out there, just as there are in every occupation. But it bears remembering that there are countless honest and fair tradesmen out there too. Once you find one who provides a reliable service at a fair price, keep them close. And pray to ye gods that they don’t, against the odds, become too busy in the future.