7 Ways To Save on Plumbing Remodel Costs

Plumber with Pipe Wrench
Plumber with Pipe Wrench. Getty / Jan Stromme

Plumbing remodels are expensive.  Unlike the guys who clean HVAC vents or rip off roofing shingles, plumbers are professionals--like electricians--who attend trade school, become apprentices for years, and submit to state and other local licensing requirements.  

But that does not mean that remodel plumbing is a one-price-fits-all project.  Smart homeowners employ tricks that help them pare down their plumbing contractor bill.

1. Call a Plumbing Contractor, Not an Emergency Plumber

Summary:  Plumbing contractors are less expensive than emergency plumbers for remodel work.

Calling an emergency plumber for an upcoming, known remodel project is like going to the ER for a hernia surgery that you have been planning for six months.  

Even if someone is on staff who can slice you open, you are still spending big bucks because you are calling upon expensive emergency personnel for a non-emergency procedure.

Plumbers like Roto-Rooter who advertise ultra-cheap prices for things like clogged shower drain repairs are best for just that purpose.  Plumbing contractors are best for things like installing new supply pipes in a bathroom remodel.

Out of necessity, many plumbers do both emergency and remodel work.  So if you are plumber-shopping on Angie's List, HomeAdvisor, or another contractor matching service, make sure that they list plumbing contracting or remodeling, along with the litany of emergency repairs they do.

When calling the plumber, specify that this is not a rush job:  you are building up estimates for a large plumbing remodel job instead of a fast toilet unclog.

2. Do Your Own Plumbing (Yes, It Is Possible)

Summary:  The ultimate way to save money on a plumber is to eliminate the plumber.

HomeAdvisor's True Cost Guide, a real-time reporting of money spent by members on projects, notes that on average homeowners spent $1,122 installing new plumbing pipes.

 

If you have the curiosity, inclination, and backup kitchen or bathroom facilities, you can save $1,000 off of that cost by running your own pipes.

The secret of successful DIY plumbing is the combination of PEX and SharkBite fittings.  Red plastic PEX pipes are hot; blue are cold.  They cut with a snipper.  They can make 8" bends (for 1/2" PEX).  They easily snap together with SharkBite push-fit couplings.

Downsides include:  big initial costs to purchase plumbing tools; the need to pull your own plumbing permit; and plumbing's learning curve.

3. Choose PEX Pipe Over Copper

Summary:  PEX pipe is cheaper than copper.

Just like at the auto mechanic, with contract plumbers you pay for labor and materials.  While you cannot bring down the plumber's labor charges, you can ask about the choice of materials:  chiefly why he/she wants to install copper pipe over PEX pipe.

PEX is the latest, greatest type of plumbing pipe.  This rigid plastic is 66% less expensive than copper.  Copper is an expensive commodity, making it subject to price fluctuations--usually upward.

While PEX is petroleum-based, and oil prices do rise and fall, its cost remains stable and low.  

If the plumber plans to use copper for your remodel project, ask if he will consider the low-cost alternative of PEX.

 Ultimately, this is the plumber's choice to use which material he feels is best.  If you disagree, it is better to move to different plumber.

4. Choose Crimp-Fit Couplings Over SharkBites

Summary:  Crimp-fit couplings are cheaper than push-fit couplings.

There are two ways to join PEX:  push-fit couplings (SharkBite is a major brand) and crimp-ring style.

  • SharkBite Push-Fit:  SharkBite couplings allow you to push the two sections of pipe together with no tools.  The pipes stay in place, until you decide to remove them with a special cheap tool.
  • Crimp-Ring:  Crimp fittings require you to squeeze a copper ring over the PEX pipe and a different type of copper fitting.  A crimping tool is used to squeeze the ring in place.

SharkBites can be as much as 10 times more expensive than crimp couplings.

Clarify with the plumber that he/she will not be using SharkBite fittings in great quantities.  SharkBites are fine for a small project, but they drive materials costs sky-high when used in great numbers.

If you think that SharkBites will save labor time, the answer is yes, but not very much.  Skilled plumbers can crimp rings nearly as fast as they can push-fit.

5. Let the Plumber Do Plumbing

Summary:  The more non-plumbing activities the plumber performs, the higher your costs.  

Imagine visiting your lawyer and asking her to help you fill out simple paperwork that you could easily do on your own.  She may agree to help, but why pay $350/hour for clerical work?

Plumbers chiefly do plumbing, but out of need they may do other things:  pulling out drywall to get to the pipes; moving stuff out of the way; setting up lighting in dimly lit spaces; bailing out flooded water, etc.

Can you do any of this before the plumber comes?  If so, you should.

Carefully pare down the plumber's activities so that they only related to plumbing.

6. Keep Your Own Plumbing "Footprint" The Same If Possible

Summary:  Changing the plumbing footprint drives up costs.

Moving around supply and drain pipes, and especially biggies like your sewer pipe and vent stacks, astronomically drives up plumbing costs.  

Try to keep your shower, sink, and toilet in place for bathrooms.  Do your best to keep the dishwasher and sink in place for kitchen remodels.  

It is not a perfect world, and things often do need to be changed around.  But just keep in mind that re-routing pipes means higher costs.

7. Provide Amenities To the Plumber

Summary:  Let your plumber use the bathroom.  It is good business sense, but above all, it is the nice, human thing to do.

"Amenities" does not mean serving champagne and caviar to your plumber.  Rather, if you have a second bathroom that is operable during your project, let the plumber use it for his or her own needs.  It is surprising how many homeowners do not allow workers to use a bathroom.

Workers who leave the work site to hunt down a bathroom at the nearest Starbuck's or McDonald's only slow down your project and drive up costs.

Remove your nice towels and replace them with a roll of Bounty.  Have no fear--everything else can be cleaned down once the plumber leaves.