Life’s full of surprises. Some are good, others—well, not so much. Like when it’s holiday season and suddenly your hot water heater decides to die. Or burst. Or whatever. Or your foundations begin to leak and before you know it, basement flooding is the name of the game. At times like that, you call the first emergency plumber whose 24-hour number you can find. But of course, there’s another surprise in store, and it isn’t necessarily just the bill for your repairs.

Here’s how to find the services you need, without getting ripped off:

Choosing a Company

Obtaining personal recommendations from family and friends is still the best way to go about finding an emergency plumber. If you can’t get hold of anyone, however, you can’t wait until they happen to be available to get relief. In the absence of direct referrals, look for plumbing companies whose websites offer client testimonials, and search for the company name on sites like Yelp to see if there are user reviews about them. You can also check their Facebook and Google+ pages for reviews. The 2014 consumer review report states that 88% of users now trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and they can’t all be wrong.

Look for a Central Location

Many of the large plumbing companies advertise that they work all over the GTA when in reality they might have an office out in Pickering. Look for an emergency plumber whose business is located centrally, so you can minimize both the traveling time and the associated costs. This makes it more worth the plumber’s while to attend to your problem, particularly if it’s after hours, and he (or she) is less likely to charge you premium rates.

Focus on Your Problem

If you need an emergency plumber who deals with basement flooding, don’t call a company that doesn’t list that as one of its areas of expertise. To save yourself time and inconvenience, it’s best to choose a contractor who has direct experience in your problem. Many plumbers are jacks of all trades and can handle any emergency regardless of the cause and result, but it’s better to be sure you’re getting someone who can do the job than to take the chance. In the worst-case scenario, an unscrupulous handyman will tell you he can do it. He’ll take your money and leave you with more of a problem than you had to start with, and building code violations on top of that.

Ask for a Written Quote

There’s simply no substitute for a written estimate, even in the case of an emergency. It makes no difference whether the problem occurs in the middle of the night or over the holiday weekend; a professional tradesman will be prepared to give you a comprehensive quote that outlines the full scope of work before he starts. Beware of companies that try to avoid doing so, based on the argument that’s they are so busy. All you’re likely to end up with is a hefty invoice and lots of inconveniences when the job isn’t done the way it should be.

Ideally, you can avoid surprises this holiday season by scheduling a professional plumbing inspection beforehand. Especially if you’re having guests over to stay, you can make sure everything is ship-shape before they arrive, and that it stays that way right through the holidays.