When moving into a new place, you find all kinds of little surprises along the way. Some are good, some are bad, all are expensive. The good surprises are the things that cost you slightly less to fix than you had anticipated.
The bad surprises are the ones you hadn't anticipated at all that tie a noose around your budget and leave it in the desert to die.
Pre-purchase, I noticed that the toilet in the master bathroom was new and nice, but not all that firmly attached to the floor. The toilet still worked, and presumably didn't leak. It just had more swivel motion than is usually found in functional toilets.
My home inspector warned me that the swivel was the result of either a broken flange, which could cost $1500 to replace, or poor installation, which would only cost the plumber some time to bolt it down to the floor properly.
I called my home warranty company, on the off chance that anything found would be covered, and they sent out someone from an outfit called XXXXX Plumbing (name redacted for reasons you'll understand later).
He looked to be a veteran of the plumbing world, someone who's seen and forgotten more about pipes and leaks than I could ever hope to know. He smoked Marlboro Reds, probably because they improved the smell of his working environment.
The grizzled old man looked me in the eye through his close-cropped silver hair, two-day beard and tobacco-stained teeth and said the words I had been dreading: "Your flange is cracked."
I have to be honest that at this juncture, I didn't know what a flange was. I knew only that it was really expensive and that I still had a lot of things in the condo that I needed to buy. Like food, clothing, and a 55-inch flat-screen.
I asked him to show it to me and then how much it would cost to fix. He pointed down and said $1200.
There goes my flat-screen.
He noticed that I seemed unhappy about this prospect. I'm not sure whether it was my intial burst of profanity or the subsequent weeping like a little girl that tipped him off. At any rate, he said he could try to secure the toilet in spite of the cracked flange using some type of MacGuyver tactics involving dental floss and chewing gum. He went back to his truck to get supplies and I worked on getting my composure back.
While he was gone, I decided it would be super-neat to take a picture of a cracked flange for my blog. You see, my fair readers, even in my moment of despair, I was thinking of you. I snapped a few shots just before the plumber returned to work his magic.
That white piece of PVC in the middle is a flange, which connects your toilet to the sewer line, i.e. it's really freaking important. Your toilet is bolted down to those grooves around the outside and in this picture, the left groove had a crack in it. See the picture above. It's very difficult to see the crack, but you will note that the plumber was there to remove the toilet from the floor and his wrench is visible. This becomes important soon enough.
The plumber returned and attempted to balance the weight of the toilet so that the cracked flange would still support the weight of the toilet and a full-grown person without rotating like a bar stool.
He was not successful. In fact, he was so not successful that he broke off the entire right side of my flange, as I was standing there watching him. See Exhibit B:
Now the tenor of our relationship changed. It was a full-on showdown. He knew that the flange was damaged but operable before he started working on it. I knew that he had only broken the flange because he was trying to be nice and save me from having to pay for a replacement.
But I had also just taken pictures of a non-broken flange, and I didn't want to pay $1200 for a new piece of PVC. He didn't want to tell his bosses he'd broken a client's toilet when standard operating procedure was probably to bill for a new flange automatically in that situation.
Our eyes locked. We gritted our teeth. Silence ensued. Tumbleweeds drifted through my bathroom as we each waited for the other to flinch.
Finally, he did.
"Let me go back to my truck," he said.
He was gone for almost 20 minutes. I snapped some more photos. As he walked back into my living room, I heard him mutter into his cell phone "Yeah, I think that's fair." He hung up and told me there was nothing more he could do that day and that the flange had to be replaced.
I mustered my best Clint Eastwood stare, spat tobacco on my shoe and asked him: "How much?"
"$275," he replied. He had earlier quoted me a price $925 higher, and described the process of chiseling out the old flange before he replaces it with a new one. It had not sounded like an enjoyable (or cheap) process.
Calmly, I holstered my six-shooter and relaxed my trigger finger.
"It's a deal," I said.
I don't know how much they would've charged me to replace that flange if I hadn't been standing there when he broke it. I don't know if the early estimate for the job of $1200 was just a scare tactic to make me feel better about writing that check for $275.
I don't know if that plumber got in trouble with his boss for having to fix this on the cheap. I hope not. He was a nice man and a worthy adversary, and I hope he didn't suffer for the kindness he showed me.
A week later, two other men from his company came out for the assignment to replace the flange. It took them about 90 minutes to do the job. They told me the price on the job had been set ahead of time and that "they don't usually do that."
I deliberately waited to post this until after the work was done, for fear that the plumbing company might read it and decide to charge me more than the quoted price just for kicks. I also don't want to cause trouble for anyone involved.
The moral of this story, of course is this: pay attention! Ask questions. Know what's going on when you hire people to do work for you. Having a digital camera on hand is also never a bad idea.
Bargaining can work also. If you ask someone to come down from their first estimate, the worst they can do is say no. "Can you do it for $XXXX?" isn't an unreasonable question. They'll still do the work at the price they quoted, and they certainly won't cut you a break if you don't ask them. Up until this home-buying and renovating experience, I've been reluctant to negotiate or haggle with people. Mostly because haggle is such a terrible-sounding word. However, with one failed house offer, one successful condo offer and several repair jobs under my belt, I won't be bashful from here on out.
So after that nugget of wisdom, I leave you with pictures: