I've been an electrician in Los Angeles since 1979, over 30 years. In that time, I've seen the work of more than a few rip-off electricians. Customers tell me that they hired some company – let's call them “Joe's Rip-Off Electric” – and, I find that the customer was way overcharged. Sometimes the work wasn't even needed. I've also seen the work of electricians who don't know what they're doing yet. Sometimes I've been hired to clean up a job by someone we'll call “Justin Amateur Electric.”
How to avoid such electricians? If your job is an installation of new electrical components, the key is to ask for a free estimate over the phone. This doesn't apply to repairing something that used to work – in this case, the electrician needs to see the job to tell you a price. He'll need to troubleshoot with his tools and track down the culprit. But for installation of a new light fixture, a new electrical panel, or even an entire house rewire, a knowledgeable electrician should usually be able to give you a ballpark estimate without even seeing your job.
Why is a Free Estimate so important? Joe Rip-Off Electric won't want to give you an estimate over the phone. Joe has a different plan. He wants to send an electrician to your home or business to look at the job. He'll charge you for looking over the job, figuring it all out, and then will give you an estimate. He'll charge for the estimate, but he'll explain that he'll deduct it from the final bill.
One variation on this plan is that Joe will tell you that he gives free estimates but that he must do it on-site. You'll need to pay him for his travel time or pay some other fee. In any such approach, you'll be paying to get the estimate.
Here's Joe's thinking. Once you've run up a bill for the estimate, you'll want to recoup the cost by agreeing to have Joe do the job. Only problem is that now you're stuck with Joe. Joe knows this and knows that you haven't had a chance to get competitive bids. He has a free hand to overcharge you.
If you ask Justin Amateur Electric for a free estimate over the phone, Justin will also explain that he needs to see the job first. But he doesn't have the same reason as Joe. Justin doesn't know enough about electric to give you an estimate. He's afraid that he'll overestimate, or more likely, underestimate and lose money doing your job. If you hire him, you're taking a chance with the quality and safety of the work. And the job may drag on while Justin learns the trade at your expense.
Get three estimates. You can avoid both Joe Rip-Off Electric and Justin Amateur by getting a free estimate over the phone. When you ask for an estimate, describe the work that you want accurately. Get estimates from at least three electricians. Don't necessarily go with the lowest estimate. You want an electrical system that works, that passes inspection if a permit is needed, and that's safe. So, while you're getting the estimate, pay attention to clues about quality and competence.
If an electrician doesn't give a free over-the-phone estimate, does it necessarily mean he's dishonest or incompetent? No. Some honest and experienced electricians have developed a policy over the years of not giving free estimates. This is because giving a free estimate, either over-the-phone or on-site, takes time. An electrician can feel taken advantage of when giving free estimates. He's occasionally gotten calls from people who have already chosen another electrician but are just calling around to find a low estimate so that they can bargain down the price of the electrician they've already selected.
While I'm aware of this type of customer, I believe that most times giving a free estimate over the phone is both helpful to the customer and a good business practice. I do take care as to when I'll send out an electrician to look at a job and give a firm bid. We'll send out an electrician if I trust the customer to go ahead with the job on a bid that's equal to or lower than our original phone estimate.
Surprisingly, sometimes our firm bid is lower than the original phone estimate. This can happen if the electrician goes to the job and realizes by looking things over that there's a more efficient way to get the job done.
Get a firm bid in writing. After you get free estimates on installing a new electrical component, the next step is to have an electrician come to your job site. On a new installation, before doing any work, they should usually be able to give you a firm bid in writing and sign it. If you agree to a written bid, you shouldn't have to pay more for the job regardless of what the electrician finds when he actually does the job.
Repair jobs require a visit to the job site. With repair jobs, you won't be able to rely on the “Free Estimate” technique for finding an electrician. You'll need to rely on checking out the electrician's website and customer references and paying attention to your comfort level with the honesty and competence of the company.
If you need something fixed that used to work, most often the electrician will need to do go to your job and charge by the half hour or hour for taking out his tools and troubleshooting. However, within a half hour to an hour, he should know the extent of the problem. At that point, if he hasn't already fixed the problem, the electrician should give you a firm bid in writing before doing more work.
Often, by the time the electrician has figured out the problem (within a half hour to an hour or so) – let's say it's a loose wire – it will take another minute or so to fix it. In fact, he may not be certain that the loose wire was the entire problem until he tightens the wire, the circuit now works, and the job is done.
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