Bamboozled: When a leak becomes a flood

BB brandingBonnie Conrad wanted good, purified water in her Piscataway home.

Not all over her home, but just for drinking.

Back in 1991, Conrad purchased a water treatment system from Professional Water Services of Tullytown, Pa.

Reps from the company would inspect the system, which cost nearly $4,000, once a year to change filters and make sure it was in working order.

Conrad, 61, said a tech came on Jan. 10 to do the inspection, and he gave her a copy of the service order when the job was done.

Part of the service order is a “Service Reminders and Questions” checklist, meant for the tech to fill out after service is completed.

One line says, “Have you checked for leaks?” There was a check mark next to that question.

The total bill was $529.80. The company agreed to let Conrad pay in thirds, so she wrote one check for $188.96, and she post-dated two additional checks to cover the rest.

The next day, Conrad’s grandchildren came over after school. While playing in the finished basement, the kids alerted her to a big problem.

2413“Water was coming out of the ceiling in my finished basement,” she said. “I looked under the sink in my kitchen upstairs, and water was pouring out like a faucet.”

She said it seemed the valve from the water system — which has a lifetime guarantee — opened. Water was everywhere, she said.

“At this point it lifted the tile in my kitchen floor and proceeded to go through the ceiling downstairs,” she said.

Immediately, Conrad said she called Professional Water Services “in a panic,” and the rep tried to tell her how to shut off the system under the sink.

“I had a difficult time and could not turn the lever off,” she said. “I called my husband and… he told me how to turn the main water off in the house.”

With the water shut, Conrad said she called Professional Water, who said a rep would come to the home Monday, Jan. 14. The leak occurred on a Friday.

“I asked about the damages and she said, `because you have been a customer for many years,’ they would take care of me,” she said.

Who is responsible?

That Monday, a service manager came to the house, Conrad said. She said he used a camera to take photos of the damage, and the valve was capped to prevent further leaking.

“He said the valve got ‘knocked open,’ and couldn’t understand how,” she said. “Who’s to say, because the area under my sink is so tight. The valve opened the day after the repair man was here, and the service manager said, `I don’t know how this happened.'”

Conrad said the manager told her to get an estimate for the damage, and she should submit it to Professional Water.

Conrad got an estimate for $4,924.46. The work would remove and replace the basement ceiling tape, spackle and paint the ceiling, plus reinstall ceiling molding. In the kitchen, it would remove and reinstall flooring, and reinstall moldings.

Conrad submitted the estimate to Professional Water Systems.

“Two days later they told me I had to put it on my homeowner’s policy,” she said.

That meant Conrad would have to pay a $500 deductible, and she’d be out money by the time the work was done.

“I had to get this fixed ASAP because I was afraid of mold with my grandchildren in my home,” she said.

Her insurance company accepted the claim and mailed her a check, but Conrad still had to pay $500 deductible.

“I feel this is unacceptable. They said they checked the system the previous day so everything according to them was okay,” Conrad said. “If they had no intentions of paying for their damages why did the service manager bring out his camera and take pictures of the damages caused by their neglect?”

There was another problem. Conrad said the insurance underwriter handling her case said her annual premiums may go up by $600 because of this claim.

Conrad said given the possible rate hike on her policy — which meant more money out of her pocket — Professional Water, and not the insurance company, should pay for the damages.

Conrad stopped payment on the two uncashed checks for the service appointment, and she asked Bamboozled for help.

Doing the right thing

We did some looking at Professional Water Systems.

The Better Business Bureau gives the company an “A+” rating, with only one complaint in the past year. That was a “Guarantee/Warranty Issue” that was resolved in April 2010.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office said the company’s registration is in good standing, and there are no legal complaints against the company by the state. The state doesn’t make public the number of consumer complaints about a company.

In New Jersey, the company is also property registered to do business in the state, and the Division of Consumer Affairs said it’s received no complaints.

We called the company and left a message.

The next day, we talked to company president Keith Borochaner. Turns out he had already talked to Conrad.

“I told her I’d try to help her out every way I can,” he said, noting Professional Water is a fourth generation company with 13,000 customers, about half in New Jersey.

“The valve broke. We did not leave it open,” he said. “I understand. I’m a person, too. I’ve had claims in my home and it’s never good. You have damage and there’s never anything good about it, but that’s why you have homeowner’s insurance.”

He said “in good faith,” and not because he’s admitting any wrongdoing, the company has offered to reimburse Conrad her $500 insurance deductible, and also return her payment for that day’s service, for which the company would not charge her.

“I will put a check in the mail,” he said.

Conrad is taking the offer, but she’s still concerned about what this claim will mean for her insurance rates.

“My theory is what happens down the road if something happens that I have to put it through the insurance company? Then they’re going to drop me,” she said. “I’m not trying to make money off anyone to go get my nails done.”

She said she called the insurer again to get a clearer picture of why her rates may rise so much after one relatively small claim. She didn’t reach the underwriter, but a customer service rep said her rates probably would not go up because of this claim.

“He did not understand how someone could tell me that it would go up $600 when my information isn’t even all on the computer yet,” she said. “He said it wouldn’t be figured out until my renewal, which is up in June.”

She said the rep told her it was reaching out to the manufacturer — given the lifetime warranty on the valve — so perhaps the manufacturer would pay for the damages.

But then she had another conversation with Borochaner, who was also in touch with the insurance company. He said the rep told him the manufacturer wouldn’t pay because the part was 21 years old.

So much for the lifetime guarantee.

If Conrad’s insurance rates go up, her only option — other than shopping around — would be to file a complaint with the Dept. of Banking and Insurance. You can do that online or you can call 1-800-446-7467.

To learn more about your policy, check out a PDF of the department’s guide called Insuring Your Home — A Consumer Guide to Homeowners, Renters and Condominium Insurance.

We’ll let you know what happens to Conrad’s rates when the policy is up for renewal in June.