Thursday, September 3, 2009

The $3500/hr Plumber's Assistant

When we first moved into our apartment, things weren't quite what we had hoped. It did not appear that the apartment had been cleaned after the previous tenant. I found an Arab newspaper under the bed, the walls were dirty with scuff marks (including one prominent shoe print in the bedroom), there were food crumbs under the dining room table, light bulbs were out, door handles were broken, the springs in the couch had sprung and no one would dare want to sit on it anyway, the DVD player did not work, the bath towels stunk, etc, etc, etc.

In short, it did not look like the cute, immaculate apartment in the pictures on the website.

Those items we could fix or adapt to we did. We bought new towels, covered the couch, washed everything (linens and dishes), wiped down the kitchen and walls. But there were some things we couldn't do....

Like the kitchen sink drain that stopped up on about our 3rd day here. On Sunday, Aug 23rd, we bought two bottles of Drano which failed to clear the drain. We contacted the management office who said they would take care of it.

Several inches of dirty, stinky water continued to sit in the sink and we waited... and waited... and waited.

We continued to send email and talk on the phone to the management office where Cedric, the owner of the management office I believe, was on holiday (it being August in Paris). We kept getting assurances that they were working on it but nothing was getting done.

Finally, yesterday, after about 10 days and more broken promises, Amanda noticed a plumber's store next door. We had not noticed it before because, well, all the stores in the neighborhood had been closed for August and everything was finally opening back up.

So I told her to ask them if they could take a look at our sink and tell us what it would cost to fix it. If the amount was reasonable, I would pay it and seek reimbursement from the management company. In any case, we had run out of patience and decided we had to do something.

This was at 4p. They told Amanda to return at 4:20p which she did. At 5p, she and nice eager Arab young man returned. He looked at it, said no problem, left, and returned with his equipment.

I was up in the loft working (having not slept for the previous 30 hours -- I stayed up all night working) and suddenly heard him cutting with a saw on something.

Whatever, I thought. How much could it be? 50 Euros? 100 Euros tops. I assumed he had to cut to see what the problem was so he could tell us how much.

10 minutes later, he stopped.

We asked how much it would cost to fix.

Now, you have to understand when I say we asked, he didn't speak English and we didn't speak French, so my question and his answer did not exactly constitute a real conversation.

He got on the phone and we first heard the number 2000 Euros! Then we heard 1000 Euros because we are in the 5th Arrondissement. Nice.

Finally, another man showed up. Another Arab man, perhaps 40, who was apparently the owner of the plumber shop. In any case, he appeared to be the boss of the man who now claimed to have fixed our sink. He demanded payment first of 499 Euros, then 405 Euros. For 10 minutes work. (I think all his assistant did was cut off the old P-trap and replace it.)

I told him I would not pay, that we did not ask them to fix the sink, only to tell us what it would cost to fix. If we had known it was 405 Euros, we would not have asked them to do it. We just wanted an estimate.

He insisted that I have to pay -- "I do not work for free."

He pulled out his certification and a price sheet and kept saying "Farfaits. Farfaits" (which we later translated to mean "Forfeit"). Also, he said estimates are not required on jobs under 500 Euros (which would explain why the price dropped to 499 Euros, before 405 Euros). When you ask the plubmer next door to LOOK at your problem, you are apparently agreeing to pay him to FIX the problem.

In any case, it appears there is a government-regulated flat rate price for certain jobs and in this case the rate was 350 Euros plus 55 Euros for something (I couldn't figure it out).

He insisted I pay. I insisted I wouldn't.

We were at a standoff. I didn't know what to do.

I asked for his cell-phone to call Cedric the manager, who I had yet to meet.

[I had received an email earlier saying he would stop by on Friday. I replied that was unacceptable and that a plumber was already here. He replied that I did not have permission to call a plubmer. I replied that we had waited 10 days and he had not solved the problem so, as far as I was concerned, I DID have permission to call the plubmer.]

I called Cedric and put him on the phone with the Plumber (plombier in french). After a long animated conversation in French between the two. (I lived in Israel for 3 months. I know how middle-easterners negotiate and it can be entertaining to watch their animation.)

Finally, he passed the phone back to me and I talked to Cedric. The 30% of what he said that I understand said to pay the plumber and that he would reimburse me. He said a lot else but I didn't catch it all. He will come on Friday and we will discuss the apartment.

So, 10 minutes of work for 400 Euros by a plumber's assistant comes out to 2400 Euros/hour (or about $3500/hr). And this plumber actually had the nerve to act like he really genuinely deserved it ("I do not work for free" he kept saying in his thick accent).

I will have to find out more how all this works, but my guess is there is a plumber's union that has convinced the government to allow these extortionist prices. I can't believe anyone in France would pay this so I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

I definitely think they took advantage of the situation. I don't think they actually believed we wold have agreed to let them fix my sink for 400 Euros had we known the price in advance. No one would have agreed to that.

Of course, he wanted cash. He would not take a credit card. So I walked down to the BNP Paribus on the corner, came back with cash, and paid him.

His eager, friendly assistant -- apparently proud that he had fixed our sink so quickly -- shook my hand, then Amanda's, and that was that.

[Addendum: Having talked to Amanda more about it, it turns out that the plumber's assistant was not already next door (as I thought)... only a person who manages the desk. Maybe he is like a taxicab dispatcher that takes calls and sends the plumbers to their next job. In any case, the young man came from his previous job somewhere else. Had I know that was the situation, I would not have asked Amanda to do it. I assumed someone next door could take a quick look and tell me what it would cost to fix it. Instead, someone next door called someone who was out on another job to come do our job. And I guess he thought it was his job to fix the problem. And then it was the manager's job to show up and give us the bill.]

[Addendum #2: I forwarded my blog article to Alex, my new friend and 20 years resident of Paris and he replied:

Sorry for your problems; the guy took advantage of you. First he should have presented you a written estimate (for any work exceeding 150 EUR). Allowing that he understood you were already accepting any price (being filthy rich Americans) he shouldn't have charged you more than cca 250 EUR tops. But, on the other hand it is well known that plumbers are among the costliest hazards in Paris, so...



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