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Beware of Overstated Home Emergency Repair Issues Leading to Exorbitant Costs by Online Vendors Disparate Service Standards with Possibility of No Recourse

  • 2023.02.15

When it comes to home emergencies such as blocked drains, tripped circuit breakers or water leakage, more and more consumers are using the internet and social media platforms to find technicians to fix the problems as soon as possible, whereas many service matching online platforms have also emerged on the market. However, the Consumer Council has received considerable consumer feedback that repair service companies sourced online not only charge widely varied prices, but also provide vastly different standards of service.

Consumers generally lack professional maintenance know-how and a grasp of what constitutes a reasonable fee, thus relying solely on the judgment and advice of technicians. But some, after inspection, claimed problems were grave and could not be dealt with by simple repairs, and proposed complicated works as follow-up arrangements, which ended up with project prices far higher than the original quotation, exceeding the budget of consumers. Some businesses even did not provide a registered address, and as consumers usually pay in cash, in the event of a dispute it would be difficult to claim damages through civil proceedings. The Council cautions traders, exaggerating the severity of problems and recommending works that exceed the actual needs of consumers, and subsequently charging high fees for the works, might constitute a breach of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. On the other hand, intermediary platforms providing matching services should also exercise reasonable care in screening suitable tradesmen according to the services requested by users, including verifying the background of the technicians, their company registration and business registration information, and whether they hold qualified waterworks or electrical works licences, etc.

Case 1: Suspected Exaggeration of Project Scale Resulting in Exorbitant Fees Charged in Full Despite Cancellation

The complainant searched online for emergency repair and electrical restoration services after a short-circuit at home and was quoted $800 by Company A. After a few minutes’ inspection, the technician claimed that cables in the problem socket were old and the flat had no separate switches for the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms. The complainant was persuaded to rewire the whole unit by open wiring, expected to take 3 days by 3 technicians, quoted at $26,500. The complainant thus paid a deposit of $5,000 to reserve the project time. Afterwards, the complainant considered that the inspection by Company A was sloppy and the works were too extensive and complicated, hence contacted Company A within 3 hours of paying the deposit to cancel and asked for a refund of the deposit. However, Company A objected and claimed that they would visit the complainant’s home to recover the outstanding amount. 2 days later, the complainant received an invoice from Company A for the remaining balance of $21,500, thus she reached out to the Council for assistance.

Company A replied to the Council that the deposit was insufficient to cover the wages of 3 days’ work by 3 technicians plus material costs, and there was no refund policy for the deposit. However, the complainant recalled that not only did Company A never mention that the deposit was non-refundable, the receipt issued after payment of the deposit did not state so either. Such terms were only stated on the invoice, which was received 2 days after deposit was placed, that there was no refund policy. At that time, the complainant had already hired another company to replace some sockets and electrical wiring, which only required half a day and cost $5,000, a vast discrepancy from Company A’s quotation. As such, she suspected Company A had overcharged and wanted to recoup part of the deposit. In the end, Company A maintained its decision and the Council advised the complainant to consider other legal recourses.

Case 2: Revised Quotation 5 Times Over Original 

Drains Clogged Again 2 Days After Works, Effectiveness Doubtful

The complainant's toilet was clogged, and after searching the internet for a plumbing service, she accepted a quotation of $1,500 from Company B. Upon inspection, 2 technicians from Company B claimed that the pipe on the external wall connected to the toilet was severely blocked and had to be cleared with a high-pressure water gun, and quoted $7,500 with an additional 1-month maintenance service. Although toilet draining was initially restored, blockage occurred again only 2 days after. The complainant discovered on the internet that quotation for high pressure drain jetting service was generally $1,500 to $3,000, which was much lower than Company B’s charge. Similar cases were found on the internet where the drainage company would first quote a few hundred to a thousand dollars over the phone, and then recommend expensive unblocking services after inspection, yet provided underwhelming results. Suspecting that Company B had engaged in unfair trade practices, the complainant lodged a complaint with the Council.

After the Council’s conciliation, Company B replied that the complainant had agreed to the proposed service and charges on the spot, with an audio recording as evidence and a receipt signed by the complainant confirming completion of the repair works. Company B also alleged that the complainant never contacted them directly for maintenance service, and as the 1-month warranty period had expired, Company B refused any refund or follow up.

Case 3: Leak Fixed but Toilet Tank Damaged

Matching Platform Unable to Provide Plumber’s Registered Address for Compensation Claim

Through Company C's mobile app platform, the complainant was matched with a plumber for repairing water leakage from the wall outlet of her toilet. The technician successfully fixed the leak but damaged the toilet tank in the process, resulting in the complainant having to replace the entire toilet. The complainant paid a repair fee of $1,200 and requested for compensation for the purchase of a new toilet, but the technician refused and the two parties failed to reach an agreement. The complainant purchased a new toilet on the following day and had it installed by another plumber at a total cost of $5,800. The complainant then intended to file for damages against the plumber at the Small Claims Tribunal and therefore contacted Company C, the referral platform, for the plumber’s address to fill in the claim form. However, Company C said that the platform provided only matching services and did not possess address information of the plumber, so they could only try their best to facilitate the communication. The complainant then sought assistance from the Council.

Company C explained to the Council that at registration, technicians only needed to prove professional qualifications with valid skill certification, such as those issued by the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD), and no contact address was required. Besides, as the platform only provided matching services through its system, Company C could only assist in communication. Company C offered a compensation of $1,000, but was declined by the complainant. The Council advised the complainant to consider seeking legal advice to recover the loss.

The Council reminds consumers that although it has become a trend to search for urgent home repair services online, there are many pitfalls and consumers may have no recourse against substandard services and unscrupulous business practices. Repair service providers and consumers should be aware of the following:

  • Some websites or apps purely serve as intermediary matching platforms for services with no performance pledge, making it difficult for consumers to seek redress in case of disputes. Consumers should be aware of the terms and conditions of the matching platform before use;
  • The identity of the repair staff should be verified before they enter premises to carry out work;
  • It provides better protection to patronise a service provider with a business address. In case of a dispute, consumers can pursue the matter face-to-face, or serve documents to the address in case of legal action;
  • If a trader offers service pledges such as warranty periods and “No Charge in Case of Failure”, consumers should enquire about arrangement details and terms before confirming the service;
  • In the vicinity of many residential areas, there are shops providing minor household repair services, such as unblocking, plumbing and electrical repairs, locksmithing, etc. Consumers can plan ahead by learning about the pricing and service details of minor household repairs, researching their reputation, and noting down contact details of traders for use in emergencies;
  • For additional work proposed ad hoc on-site, consumers should first discern work details and charges. Consult one’s property management company if it involves common areas. If consumers consider a quoted price too high, they can compare prices among several other companies before making a decision;
  • After the transaction, check whether receipts have clearly set out details of services and guarantees. Retain receipts as evidence;
  • If repairs involve electrical work, verify whether the technician is a registered electrical worker of the EMSD. For minor works such as alterations to windows, work should be carried out by professionals or contractors as specified by the Buildings Department. For works involving alterations or repairs to the internal water supply system (specified plumbing works), it should be carried out by a licensed plumber registered with the Water Supplies Department.


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