Have I just been ripped off by a plumber or is this acceptable?

OPINION: You might remember that last week I was pontificating about the building industry in NZ and how everyone had a horror story.

I hope to return to the subject over the next few months but I was remiss in not mentioning another charming facet of the industry.

That, of course, is overcharging, or to use a more technical term, being ripped off, or to get even more technical, getting screwed.

I know you are probably thinking along the lines of that joke which goes that a Dutchman is a Scotsman without the Scotsman's generosity. In other words an inherently tight person will always think they are being ripped off. This is untrue but I admit I am price sensitive.

As it happens I am also a landlord which automatically disqualifies me from any sympathy but I am sure my tenants will attest that I am a generous and solicitous proprietor.

When they had a problem last week with the toilet cistern, I was on the blower almost immediately to one of those 24 hour service plumbers to get the cistern replaced.

The firm, which it would be unfair to name, could do it straight away and I blessed it for its efficiency. I knew the bill would be a steep given the urgency of the request but when it arrived I was even more shocked than I expected.

Don't forget I hadn't asked for a bathroom refurbishment or gold taps. The task was to install a budget Dux central flush cistern – a very simple job apparently – and nothing more.

The bill – I can feel the colour draining from my face as I write – was $715.33.

I couldn't really quibble with the labour component which came to $330 including GST although at the hourly rate of $94.30, you could be forgiven for thinking the plumber was also qualified to perform bowel surgery. But I expected to pay a premium for a same-day job.

There was another $28.75 for mileage which I thought was fair enough since we live out of town.

Then the hardware. The budget cistern was charged at $199.93 which seemed a bit steep so I checked with Bunnings and Mitre 10 to find the exact same article retailed for only $94.

I suspected the plumbing firm probably got its materials from a merchant like Plumbing World so I rang the outlet to find the trade price was $118.00.

So let's be charitable and assume our plumbing firm got the cistern at the trade price at Plumbing World (it's a big firm so probably got it cheaper). That means it still whacked $82 on the cistern, a not insignificant mark-up of 70 per cent.

Have I just been ripped off by a plumber or is this acceptable?

The bill had a long way to go yet.

Apparently the repair had also required a new ballcock, a dolphin float, a ballcock seat nipple, a mini ball valve, a bit of flexi hose and, of course sundries. These came to a total price of $156.59.

I checked with another plumber. Most of the materials for the repair came with the cistern so apart from a tap and a bit of connecting hose that should have been it. Perhaps another $30 worth of bits and pieces. Certainly not $156.59 worth of extra stuff.

Yet another thing stuck in my craw about the whole deal. The old cistern was made of copper and the tenant asked the plumber if she could have it.

He told her he couldn't give it to her because the landlord wanted it. That was untrue because I hadn't mentioned what he should do with the cistern. I assumed because it was my property he would leave it at the cottage. He didn't.

So this week I rang the manager of the plumbing firm to ask a few questions. I queried him about the price of the cistern and the mark-up. He said he had charged the retail price plus mark-up but would come back to me.

Well, what about the extra items charged which could have been expected to come with the cistern package. They might have been installed somewhere else on the premises, he said.

Really? I hadn't asked for any other repairs and surely I would know if there were other problems.

Another thing to get back to me on. And what about the old cistern? That had gone out with the scrap, he said. Too bad.

I know this might sound a bit like a first world problem. We have the feeling everyone charges like a wounded bull in today's rat race.

I can afford to pay through the nose but a lot of others can't. Most people don't check their bills and are ripe for a rip-off. And in the end these charges get passed to those at the bottom like people who pay the rent.

In some ways I'm not averse to paying a middle-class premium for services but I draw the line at a blatant rip-off and being played for a chump.