When Is It Time to Call a Plumber?

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Sometimes it's hard to know if you should grab a wrench and try to fix it yourself, or pay a plumber to diagnose and solve the problem.

When water from a burst pipe covers the first step of your basement stairs, the decision to call plumber is a no-brainer. But when water drips from a faucet, or your toilet runs incessantly, it's hard to know if you should grab a wrench and try to fix it yourself, or pay a plumber $45-$150 per hour (depending on location) to diagnose and solve the problem.

Short answer: It depends. Gushing water can cause expensive damage and demands professional attention. But even small drips can be costly over time. Typically, household water leaks waste more than 10,000 gallons per year, according to the EPA. That's enough to fill a swimming pool halfway.

If you know an O ring from a washer, you might be able to fix minor plumbing nuisances. But if your time is valuable and your handyman skills are minor, you'll ultimately save money on a plumber who knows how to fix the following problems.

Burst pipe

When the weather outside turns frightful, cold water coming into your house can cause pipes to contract, then freezing water can cause them to burst, creating a gusher within your home.

The best thing you can do is switch off the main water valve and move valuables to high ground. Then, call a plumber, who will replace the section of damaged pipe.

Cost: $50 to $1,500 depending on when you call (nights or weekends) and where the pipe is located (inside or outside a wall).

Leaky faucet

Sometimes a faucet leaks because you didn't turn the handle all the way. That's an easy fix. But when worn out washers or seals, loose parts, or broken pipes and fittings cause that mind-numbing drip, drip, drip, then call a plumber to replace parts or perhaps install a new Moen faucet.

Cost: $194-$233.

Clogged drain

If your sink or tub won't drain, you might be able to pull out a hair plug with a pair of needle nose pliers or dissolve it with a white vinegar/baking soda cocktail. But if those easy fixes don't work, call a plumber to determine and remove what's gumming up the works.

Sometimes, a plumber will send a tiny camera attached to a flexible rod through your pipes to determine what's preventing water flow—mineral buildup, misalignment, broken pipes, even root intrusion. Once the plumber identifies the reason water is pooling in your tub, he can fix it.

Cost for video inspection: $100-$800

Cost for unclogging a drain, $226.

Sudden pressure drop

If your drenching shower suddenly becomes an annoying trickle, your showerhead might be clogged (an easy DIY fix), or the pipes entering your house might have corroded and sprung a leak that causes major foundation damage.

The point is, it's hard to know what's draining watering pressure unless you call a plumber. If you're lucky, he may replace only a small section of pipe; if you're not, your entire house may need re-piping. Ouch!

Cost: for re-piping: $1,500 to $15,000 depending on house size, number of bathrooms and whether you choose copper or plastic pipe.

How to avoid plumbing problems

The best way to avoid calling a plumber is to prevent plumbing problems.

  • First step, locate your home's main water valve, so you can turn it off quickly if a pipe bursts, minimizing flooding and water damage.
  • Avoid frozen pipes by turning off water supply to outdoor spigots when the temperature falls below freezing. Open spigots to allow water already in the pipes to drain.
  • In late fall, wrap exposed pipes with heating tape, encased electrical wire that regulates the temperature around plumbing pipes and keeps them from freezing and bursting.
  • Every few months, eyeball plumbing under sinks and behind toilet tanks for dampness or drips.
  • Regularly clean faucet aerators and showerheads to prevent clogs from mineral deposits.

Bottom line: Sure, calling a plumber can be a hit to your wallet. But if you've got a water problem, not calling a plumber could be a disaster to your home and budget.