TODAY | February 21, 2013
>>> report investigation. jeff and his team have looked into all kinds of contractors and this time, plumbers, will they be honest and competent. hey, jeff, we've been waiting for this.
>> something asked about many time, honest or competent. when you call a plumber many times you trust them for help to find the problem and fix it at a fair price . we're at it again with our hidden cameras testing plumbers to see who gets it right and who lands in hot water .
>> reporter: you stand behind your story she needs a new hot water heater . we just want a plumber to fix a small atlantleak.
>> why do you want to charge her $ 1900 ?
>> reporter: these experts want to charge her for things that aren't even broken. we rented this house in suburban, new jersey.
>> it should have been in your backpack. did you look in your backpack?
>> reporter: home to liz, mother of four. down in this basement, she has a hot water heater in good shape.
>> everything looks fine on this.
>> reporter: we know because we had three experts all licensed master plumbers inspect it top to bottom.
>> excellent condition.
>> i'm confident that's in good working order.
>> in excellent condition.
>> reporter: one of the experts was pete boros, chairman of licensing board for plumbers.
>> reporter: how many years in the business?
>> over 30 years.
>> reporter: he set up a simple problem with the heater, churning this screw just a hair to start a small leak from this valve, creating a puddle on the floor. the fix, easy. just tighten the screw, something he says any plumber should spot in a minute.
>> reporter: if one of these companies says you need repairs?
>> that would not be true.
>> reporter: we wired the house with hidden cameras covering every angle.
>> i need someone to come out and look at my hot water heater .
>> reporter: then had our mom called 10 water companies to diagnose the leak. as each company shows up, we're watching with our expert from a control room upstairs.
>> there he is.
>> reporter: things start off great. within a minute, this first plumber finds and fixes the problem, that easy churn of the screw.
>> the drain valve was just slightly open just a hair. i just closed it.
>> thank you.
>> okay. what do i owe you for that?
>> that's okay. no problem.
>> nothing? are you kidding?
>> no problem.
>> reporter: amazing. these next few plumbers also fixed the problem in just minutes.
>> that's it?
>> reporter: but our luck is about to go down the drain. meet frank.
>> liz. good to meet you, frank.
>> reporter: he checks the tank. and watch, frank finds and fixes the leak, churning that screw. problem solved , but he tells our mom, there's still a drip.
>> the water has to be drained and then you need a new valve put on.
>> that will fix the leak?
>> that will fix the leak.
>> reporter: that's right, even though he fixed the leak, he still wants to put in a brand new valve. price, $359.
>> what do you make of that?
>> i think he's trying to take advantage of the homeowner financially.
>> reporter: we have questions for frank.
>> hi, jeff rossen from nbc news. you just told her she needs a new valve. why?
>> it was leaking.
>> reporter: you tightened it and it stopped leaking.
>> it was still forming a drip.
>> reporter: actually the dripping had stopped but he says he didn't want to hang around and make sure or have to come back.
>> reporter: do you stand by this?
>> for what i saw? yes.
>> reporter: if you think he's pricey, this next plumber takes it to another level.
>> the basement is right there.
>> reporter: just seconds in, he sees major problems.
>> there is no fixing it, just replacing it.
>> you're the expert, what do you think?
>> you need a new unit, just from looking at it.
>> reporter: a new unit. he says it's getting old, wet on the bottom and this corrosion means the side pipe is leaking. all wrong says our expert. this unit is in tiptop shape. why is this guy telling our mom she needs to pay for a new one?
>> there's no fixing the leak except for replacing it.
>> reporter: the cost, a whopping $1,675.
>> hi. jeff rossen from nbc news. the leak was coming from this valve. did you check this?
>> i didn't see nothing here.
>> reporter: didn't see it. our expert says it was right in front of him.
>> here is where i saw the leak.
>> i'm feeling it. it's bone dry.
>> when i first felt it there, i felt a little bit of wetness.
>> reporter: do you feel it now?
>> reporter: neither do i. he couldn't explain that and decided to leave. we reached out to the company owner but didn't hear back. but the biggest bill is yet to come. meet joe.
>> i'm just trying to see because i don't want you to have to spend no money you don't have to spend.
>> reporter: that sounds nice. joe spends a lot of time looking, touching, staring at the heater. at first, he says this.
>> i think it's coming from here.
>> reporter: minutes later, he changes his tune.
>> replace it, take this one out and put a new one in.
>> you mean the whole thing?
>> yeah. it has to be coming from that.
>> the price?
>> 1900 bucks.
>> that's what i need to do for this leak?
>> yes, ma'am.
>> reporter: nearly $2,000 to replace a water heater our expert says could last another 10 to 15 years.
>> reporter: why do you want to charge her $ 1900 ?
>> i told her the bottom of the water heater is leaking. it was wet.
>> reporter: our expert says it was a simple explanation.
>> it was easy to fix, a turn of the screw .
>> i told her that.
>> reporter: no, you didn't.
>> i told her that either way .
>> reporter: i was watching hidden camera .
>> i told her either way .
>> reporter: i was watching in a hidden camera .
>> i'm gone.
>> reporter: she said what do i need to do to fix this leak? you said a new hot water heater . our expert says it was working perfectl perfectly.
>> all right.
>> reporter: in the end most did what's rite and in the end almost half tried to charge money for work she didn't need.
>> experts says before you pay for a hot water heater you should get estimates and ask friends for a recommendation before you find yourself in the middle of an emergency and quickly searching for a plumber. call your local consumer affairs office to make sure that plumber you hire is licensed.
>> you think it can't be