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Call-out fees – how much should you pay?

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When you've got a burst pipe that's sending water cascading down through the ceiling light fitting and ruining your carpets, you need a plumber quickly. The same happens if your gas boiler decides to fail just as the cold weather is kicking in, or tiles start sliding off your roof. We all expect professional tradespeople to charge a call-out fee, especially if it's an emergency. But what happens if your bill hits triple digits for a one-hour job? What's a fair call-out fee, and at what point should you be considering taking action?

Is there any legal cover?

Services are very different from products. If you buy a faulty product then, generally speaking, it is relatively easy to get your money back. You're covered by a raft of legislation that gives you cooling off' periods of up to 14 days when you can change your mind and get your money refunded.

Services, however, are not so easy to define, and the only real piece of legislation that affords you with any rights at all is the Consumer Rights Act, which replaced the Supply of Services Act 1982. When talking about the cost of services provided the Act says that  "a tradesman or professional has a 'duty of care' towards you and your property. Any standard or price you agree must be honoured. But if it isn't agreed in advance the work must be done to a reasonable standard, at a reasonable cost, and within a reasonable time."

The real issue lies in the definition of the word reasonable', which can be open to interpretation by the service provider and may not match your expectations of a reasonable charge.

What the Act does do is lay down a course of action you can take if you feel the fees charged either do not represent the quality of work you'd expect if you were to get the work done by a comparable provider, or if you feel you've been overcharged.

What can you do?

According to the Act, the trader should either redo the element of the service that is inadequate or redo the whole job again at no extra cost and within a reasonable time frame. Alternatively, you can claim for a price reduction which could be up to 100% of the costs. That refund must be given to you within 14 days of you and the service provider agreeing that you're entitled to a refund.

Therein, though, lies the rub - getting the provider to agree that a refund is justified. However, the Consumer Rights Act does make it easier for you to challenge what are referred to as unfair terms in contracts, which also includes verbal agreements. Unfair terms can be anything from fees and hidden charges buried in the company's small print through to disproportionate default charges or anything that tries to limit your legal rights as a consumer.

However, remember that you are also a signatory to that contract, which means if you withhold payment and the case goes to court and you lose, you could end up not just having to pay the original amount, but fees and costs for both sides too. So, if you are going to challenge a service provider's fees, you need to get legal representation straight away.

They've charged me VAT, but I can't see a VAT registration number

If a service provider charges VAT but is not VAT-registered, then that's a simple case of fraud. Both the police and the revenue service would probably like to hear about that, so the advice is to inform them straight away.

Check first, not afterwards

Call-out fees should be clearly shown on a tradesperson's website and shouldn't be hidden away in the small print' in the terms and conditions. It's referred to as transparency and is an important factor in determining whether or not a charge may be justified.

However, it's just as much your responsibility to check carefully, including asking them outright when you call or contact them before you've even asked them to take on the job. In many cases it's definitely a buyer beware' scenario when it comes to service provision, so unless you've got water gushing through your house at 3am, the advice is always to ring around and get a variety of quotes.

There are also websites where you can check what is a fair' call-out charge for a variety of different trades, such as who also list the various charges you'll face depending on your location.

Johanna Abrahams is a Litigation Executive and can be contacted on 01323 434416 or by email

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