When the water pipe in her front yard broke last summer and "water shot up like a little fountain," the 80-year-old Brentwood resident called a plumber to repair the damage. He asked for $2,600 to replace the pipe and make the proper connections.

The woman paid the price.

But talks with neighbors soon convinced Lena Wolfinger Smith, who lives in a turn-of-the-century wood and brick house in Prince George's County, that she was overcharged. Smith complained to local consumer officials, who, after investigating, called a special administrative hearing.

At the hearing before the county's Consumer Protection Commission, two master plumbers familiar with the Brentwood area testified that they would have done the job for less than $800--about a third of the amount Smith paid Frank Gash, trading as Gash Plumbing Co. in Lanham.

Smith said in an interview that she called Gash because he once had done some work for her father. "I thought I could trust him," she said. She did not shop around for other estimates before contracting to pay Gash $1,300 before the work started and $1,300 a few days later.

Gash, a 70-year-old licensed plumber, said the bill reflected the difficulty of the job, which required digging up water-saturated, muddy earth. He said $2,400 of the charge was compensation for him and his son, also a plumber, at the rate of $200 a day. The balance was for materials and permits, he said.

The commission found Gash guilty of the charge of "unconscionability" and ordered him to refund $1,000 to Smith. He has until the end of February to appeal the case to Circuit Court.

Unconscionability is defined as gross disparity between the price paid and the value received by a consumer, as well as taking unfair advantage of the ability, knowledge or capacity of a consumer.

Consumer officials describe the unconscionability charge as rare. "We don't have many like this," said Jennifer J. Dean, a consumer education specialist with the Prince George's Consumer Protection Commission.

There is nothing rare, however, about consumers, particularly the elderly, finding themselves in emergencies where they must make quick decisions about home repairs.

"It is frightening for them, and it is very difficult because they have to react immediately," Dean said.

But she said it is imperative for consumers to protect themselves against overcharges. Dean said some home repair work leads to more problems for consumers than other types of work.

"The plumbing industry generally is a good one; we get only a few complaints about them," she said. When there is a complaint, she said, plumbers are quick to step forward and help consumer officials resolve the problem.

There are ways that consumers can help themselves, however. Here is one precaution that Smith could have taken:

"In an emergency situation like this one, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission would have cut off the water," Dean said. "That would have given her time to call two or three plumbers to get their estimates for doing the work."

When hiring a contractor, consumers also should routinely ask local consumer officials if there are any complaints against the business (there were none against Gash). In addition, they should find out if the contractor is licensed (Gash was licensed).

Those three rules--getting several estimates, checking complaint records and confirming the contractors' licenses--apply to all home repair problems, ranging from minor carpentry work to major home improvements.

Moreover, consumers shouldn't pay more than one-third of the price in advance. "That is the general rule for home improvement and repair work," Dean said.

For Washington area residents, the biggest potential plumbing headache now is frozen water pipes.

This problem typically begins with high winds and low temperatures that can freeze water in the pipes that lead from the ground to a home or office. These pipes usually snake through the walls and under the floors. If there is a leak in the outside wall or masonry permitting wind to get through to the water pipe, it can result in the water in the pipe freezing.

When the water freezes, it expands, rupturing the pipe. Then when the water thaws, the broken pipe begins leaking.

One way to keep pipes from freezing, according to the WSSC, is to leave the cold water faucet at the lowest level in your house--usually the basement--running at a trickle. That slight movement should prevent freezing.