Dear Lifehacker, After your article on GimmeQuotes, I thought you might address the problem of plumbers' obscene pricing! I have a job that would take me no more than three hours, so shouldn't take a pro more than two -- it's a very simple job with easy access! I can purchase the hardware (pipe, fittings, etc) for under $200. Given that most plumbers around here charge around $75 an hour, I just can't understand why the quotes are coming in at around $1000 to $2000.00.
I know how to do it myself, so it's particularly galling that the law states that I have to submit to this outrageous practice. I realise that plumbers are in great demand, so most of them aren't interested in small jobs like mine, hence they will quote extremely bloated prices to rid themselves of the issue. So why are those that are "interested" still gouging their customers! Why? Because they can, and the ACCC allows it! Cheers, I've Got A Sink Plunger And I'm Slightly Afraid To Use It
Picture by Will Powell
There's an intersection of two areas of regulation here: public safety and competition. Unfortunately, the end result is that plumbers can, for the most part, quote you pretty much whatever they like.
The exact details vary from state to state, but the main reason why plumbing repairs are only supposed to be carried out by licensed plumbers is, as the Master Plumbers Association of WA puts it, "unlicensed plumbing and gasfitting is illegal due to the risks to public health, safety and the environment". In practice, changing a washer isn't likely to cause any issues, but messing around with sewerage lines if you don't know what you're doing could obviously get unpleasant. (Similar regulations apply to electrical work.)
As for the ACCC, the clue is in the name: the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. While it has a major role to play in consumer advocacy, the ACCC operates on the assumption that competition is the most effective way of ensuring consumers get value for money, and many of its regulatory activities are focused on ensuring that competition is maintained. If a group of plumbers got together and agreed not to quote less than a given amount per hour, the ACCC would come down on them like a ton of bricks. But since there are thousands of plumbers in Australia, and they can quote independently, the competition process is essentially working from an ACCC perspective: there's not an immediate breach of regulations, and there's not an effective monopoly on supply of plumbers by just a handful of companies.
Sorry we can't offer more succour, but that's the reality. Finding an efficient, value-for-money plumber often takes time, and the old-fashioned approach of asking for recommendations from friends and neighbours might be your best bet. Good luck!