May 06, 2009

Paying the price of doing it yourself

As published in The Erin Advocate

I was just cutting a horizontal strip of drywall out of my bathroom wall, near the floor, where the vanity used to be, so my electrician could run a new wire to an outlet on the other side of the new counter. For better or for worse, I am one of those amateur home renovators who want to do some of the work themselves.

Sometimes, you save some money (as long as you do not count too many dollars per hour for your own time). Sometimes, you get the satisfaction of doing a good job on a practical task. And then, there are days like last Sunday.

I was hacking away with my manual drywall saw, and getting pretty tired, so I decided to get out my Sawzall, with enough power to chop my whole house into little pieces. I was able to glide through that drywall like butter, just working my way around the studs.

Later, I checked the operating manual for that reciprocating saw, which clearly said, "Make sure hidden wiring, water pipes, or other hazards are not in the cutting path." It also advised me to, "Stay alert, watch what you are doing and use common sense."

As the saw approached the sink area, I heard a metallic ping, and was hit with a spray of hot water from the copper pipe behind the drywall. It took about two seconds for the nature of the problem to sink in, and another 20 seconds for a mad dash into the crawl space to turn off the water supply.

When I returned to the bathroom, the paint in the open can on the other side of the room had been diluted, and my plugged-in power tools lay in a pool of water on the floor. Fortunately, this story does not have a shocking conclusion (unless you count the bill from the plumber); I was able to cut the power, clean up the mess and assemble a logical explanation for when Jean got home.

My plumber retired a few years ago, and I have not needed one for a while, so I looked in the Advocate's Community Service Directory – no plumbers. I checked the Orangeville and Georgetown Yellow Pages, but could find no Erin-based plumbers, and there are none in Erin's "Who Does It" directory.

There must be some Erin plumbers, but I couldn't find one on short notice. (It only costs $10.50 a week to be in the Service Directory.) So I used a big plumbing company with a branch in Georgetown.

They charge $39.50 to show up, then quote you a flat rate once they see the nature of your problem. If you have them stay to do the work, the $39.50 is waived, which seems reasonable, until you hear the flat rate.

In the meantime, I had trimmed away the wet drywall so the nicked pipe was fully exposed. The price to replace three inches of pipe was $192 plus tax. It took the guy only 20 minutes. I guess I could have just paid the $39.50 and got someone else in to quote on the job, but for all I know, $192 is the normal price for fixing a pipe. In retrospect, I probably should have looked for a firm that charged an hourly rate.

Also, I know I was paying for more than just that 20 minutes of work. I was paying for the answering service on a Sunday, for the dispatcher who called first thing Monday morning, for the privilege of having a tradesman at my door within two hours, and for the quality control phone call later in the day to ask if the plumber had been prompt, courteous and successful in fixing my problem.

As a kid, I remember people being in awe of plumbers, because at that time they were said to make $10 per hour, which seemed an extremely high wage. I guess these things never really change: when you have an emergency, your bargaining power and ability to shop around are limited.

The kicker came when the electrician showed up. It turns out he did not really need that strip of drywall to be cut out of the wall after all.