It is a universal law that you should never go with the first bid on a home repair.
And yes, you’d think it goes without saying. But sometimes even those of us who know better… don’t know better. Cough cough.
The lights in this house have always had occasional blinks. But lately I and my guest house tenant have noticed some flickering. Or more exactly, a kind of stuttering where the light would blink on and off two to three times in rapid succession. And we’d both noticed it was getting more frequent.
As of a couple weeks ago, it’s started to happen multiple times a day. It was worst in the bathroom, where it would flat least once while I was putting on makeup and once when I’d be getting ready for bed.
So I did a little Googling and found that it was likely a problem with the whole electrical panel. Oof.
My usual handyman service doesn’t do whole panel replacements — and when I described the issue, the receptionist said that it sounded like the issue (without my mentioning it) — and they gave me the name of an electrician they like.
I called them, and I called an electrician I’d used before. The latter would charge me $40 less for the first hour of any troubleshooting visit. So they won.
The guy got here and was very amenable and friendly. When I described the issue, he said he’d take a look at the panel and subpanel.
A dire prognosis
Not too long after, he called me outside and explained that based on what he was seeing, rather than dig around with his tool extensively — in which case the company would charge me the $185 for a troubleshooting call — he was going to treat this as a trip for an estimate. Because he saw a few issues that definitely needed to be addressed.
First, he showed me the main panel and pointed out wear/weather damage and said that he thought the panel was just creeping toward being toast. The connectors didn’t look great to me — and of course I’d been expecting a panel replacement was necessary — so I said okay.
He said the next issue was that my subpanel was water bonded — which as best I can tell refers to a grounding technique that involves being attached to the water line — which wasn’t ideal in general and definitely should only be done on a main panel. (I suspect that the current subpanel was the main panel and that it was only made into a subpanel when the guest house was built.)
Finally, he showed me where a pipe maybe 3″ in diameter had a whole mess of wires in it. The guy said that if the wires are too close together, over time there can be heat buildup, potentially leading to damage.
He did note that this was a lower priority than the others. But since it would require them to remove each wire from the panel, run it through the new pipe and reattach it to the panel, it would be an $800ish job.
Ouch ouch ouch
So we agreed to focus on the main two jobs. Which were more than $7,500 total. The panel was $5,800 and the water bond issue was $1,700.
Would I normally have had someone else come out? Yeah. But a) I had no reason to believe the panel wasn’t dying, since online articles seemed to agree with the electrician, b) I’d have to pay $180 for what I was pretty sure would just be a confirmation, and c) I was worried about time.
See, you can’t replace an electrical panel without someone from the utility company coming out and signing off. And apparently mine was booking six to 10 weeks out. And as I mentioned, the flickering had gotten notably worse in the previous few weeks.
So I just went with the estimate I had and put down a deposit.
A (sorta) second opinion
When I told my friend Andre the news, he said it sounded like a lot of money. He asked if he could check with his electrician friend. Which, uh, yeah obviously. So I forwarded the emailed estimates to him, and they got sent to the friend.
The electrician friend got back to him the next day to say the cost seemed high at first glance, but he’d take a more thorough look soon.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know when he’d be available — and did I mention I was worried about time? — so I called the place my handyman service had recommended.
For some reason, I ended up getting the owner himself out to the property. I think maybe he lives closer to me? Because I think the company itself is in the East Valley.
At any rate, I told him the issue and what the other guy had said — yeah, I know you’re not supposed to do that but meh — and was told that the first guy really should’ve dug around more than what I described. So, the owner said, I ought to first book a troubleshooting call. He told me to ask for a specific employee who was apparently the company’s go-to guy for residential wiring issues.
They managed to get me an appointment two days from then, so I called the first company to say pause any further work. (There wasn’t any to do except wait for my utility to call them back with appointments, but I wanted to be safe.)
A definite second opinion
The new electrician, Cyrus, had a slightly different verdict than the first guy.
Apparently, there had been “a bunch of loose stuff” that had needed a lot of tightening. A lot of tightening, apparently. He made the motion of turning a screwdriver, so I guess he was referring to screws holding the wires down? Or screws holding the breakers in?
But I do know that after tightening everything up, he stood in the bathroom watching the light for about 10 minutes, then kept an eye on it while we were talking for another 10, and it only blinked once. It was an on/off blink (as opposed to the 2-3 stutters I’d been seeing) and it happened when the A/C kicked on, which he assured me is perfectly normal in older houses.
He said that there wasn’t any evidence of major weather damage, and there was no corrosion. He said the subpanel did have some water damage, but everything appeared to be in working condition.
So he advised me to switch to an LED light in the bathroom — apparently halogen bulbs draw more power, so they’re more likely to blink with older house wiring — and call if the flickering started up again. And… that was it.
It can’t be that simple
Never one to trust this level of good luck, I asked about the other issues the first electrician had mentioned.
Well, funny story…
Had the first guy actually decided to troubleshoot — get out his tools and dig around — he’d have found out that the subpanel is actually bonded in the regular sense. The water bond is a secondary one.
Oh and that pipe? Not a concern, according to Cyrus. He assured me that he’d tugged on them and they moved freely, so there was enough space. He said that if I ever wanted to add wires, I’d want to get a bigger pipe. But otherwise, the current setup was fine.
So my price for the electrical issues in the house went from $8,300 for three projects down to $186 for a troubleshooting call.
Oh, and even if the work had been necessary, Andre’s electrician friend had said that based on the pics and description in the estimate, he’d be happy to do the two big projects for $5,500 total.
So yeah, I feel pretty dumb for almost going with the first quote.
But again, it was from a company that I’d used before. Their rates were reasonable when they fixed some outlets, and they hadn’t pushed me about other work. So I really thought I could trust them. But apparently not.
And this isn’t the only time I’ve come close to overpaying.
There was a number of years where I did not get dental cleanings. We didn’t have much money, and I didn’t have dental insurance. So I just put it off.
Then I had some tooth pain — thankfully, the year I found an insurance plan that at least came with a dental discount plan — so I tried a dental office that was part of a local chain.
Turns out, I’d cracked a tooth. Eek! For reasons I no longer remember, I also needed a root canal — they weren’t the ones doing it, nor did they recommend anyone specific, so at least I know that wasn’t an upsell — and a little bit later, the crown was put on.
Thankfully, with the discount plan the whole ordeal was “only” about $1,700.
At the end of the crown fitting, I finally made an appointment for a checkup. And since it had been at least two years since I’d had a cleaning, I believed them when they said that the buildup was bad enough that I needed the most extreme type. Which involved them basically peeling back gum tissue to get at more of the tooth.
Ick ick ick ick ick ick ick ick.
Oh, also one of my left molars needed a crown, then said.
I mentioned all this on the blog — both to complain about the impending expense and about how ooky the procedure sounded — and a reader commented that their recommended cleaning was actually often an unnecessary upsell.
Ever eager to not have my gums peeled back, I found a place with good reviews that accepted my plan.
The dentist took a look and said that, while I needed a more in-depth cleaning that the basic one, in her opinion I didn’t need the most extreme option. She also said that, while she wanted to watch the allegedly-needs-a-crown molar, she didn’t think we needed to get a crown on it just yet.
So the moral is always get a second opinion, no matter how much you trust the company and no matter how pressed you feel for time.
The second moral is that I owe Andre a drink for pushing me to get a second quote. Or a meal. Or probably several meals.
Anyone else have some close calls with overpaying?