When he found a leaky connection in the polybutyl pipes under his kitchen sink on a late Friday afternoon recently, the Laurel reader called a plumbing firm from the phone book. "They are one of the firms that advertise 'fixed price' on jobs," he says.

Two plumbers arrived promptly, checked their rate book, and quoted him $245 for finding the leak and repairing it. That flat rate, the consumer says, was $135 more than he ever had paid for any plumbing work in his townhouse -- including some messy toilet jobs.

His choices: Pay what seemed to be an inflated flat rate to get the job done; or pay the $50 estimate fee, show the plumbers the door, and find another plumber. Worried that the leak could get worse before he could find a cheaper plumber on a Friday evening, the consumer gave the flat-rate plumbers the go-ahead.

"Turns out that all they did was loosen the connection, put on some plumber's dope, and re-tighten it," he says of the repair that took only a few minutes. "Still $245."

Moral of the story: "Don't use fixed-price plumbers for any job that isn't major or obviously complex," he warns, "and be prepared to pay the estimate fee and take your loss."

Keep in mind that residential-repair plumbers usually get calls out of desperation, when something has gone wrong -- the kitchen sink backs up, the toilet is clogged. Rarely do these things happen at convenient times.

Rates vary greatly among metropolitan-area plumbers for emergency, weekend or night jobs: $150 or more for the first hour, plus $35 each additional 15 minutes, isn't unheard of. "Plumbers who do work after hours usually charge time and a half," says J.R. Seymour, vice president of the Washington Suburban Master Plumbers Association and co-owner of R.L. Voight and Son, a Kensington-based plumbing firm.

So, hourly or flat rates? Flat rates guarantee no surprises for the customer, who agrees to the price ahead of time. "More and more companies are going to flat rates," says Seymour, who bills hourly rates for time and materials -- except for set-rate jobs like water heater and toilet replacements.

For small jobs such as a leaky kitchen pipe? That Laurel leak would have taken 15 minutes, says Seymour, who doesn't do after-hours jobs. At his standard rate, however, $80 would have covered it.

Recall Update Unilever Home and Personal Care USA voluntarily recalled about 150,000 Snuggle Teeny Bean Bears last week. The five-inch-tall stuffed bears were packaged as promotional items with twin packs of Snuggle, Cuddle Up, Fresh Rain and Sweet Slumber fabric softeners that sold ($7-$8) at Wal-Mart stores nationwide in March and April 2001. At the end of the bear's blue nightcap with a moon-and-star design is a yellow pompom that can detach and pose a choking hazard to young children. If you have one of these bears, Snuggle's customer service department (800-598-5005) recommends that you "cut the pompom off" immediately.

Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to oldenburgd@washpost.com or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.