Looking for a home improvement contractor? Don’t Panic!

December 3, 2007

When it comes to home ownership, there are few things more confusing (and sometimes intimidating) than having to find and hire someone to do work on your home. How do you find a plumber, electrician, painter, or carpenter? More importantly, how do you know if they are good, reliable, and trustworthy?

Obviously, you can ask a friend or someone you know who has had work done recently. That's always a solid, relevant datapoint…but that's only one reference. And what if you are new in town and don't know anyone? The good ‘ol Internet can help out. There are two websites that I will discuss that can help get you on your way:

Angie's List: http://www.angieslist.com The name-connection to the ubiquitous “craigslist” is obvious in the moniker. Angie's List was created in 1995 by Angie Hicks in Columbus, Ohio as a way for homeowners to track and rate different contractors in the various home-improvement trades. Since it's inception, Angie's List has expanded into many areas, including the San Francisco Bay Area. This site is different from others in two main areas:

  • Cost. There is a fee to join ($15 sign-up, approx $5 per month.) The company rationalizes this as a way to get “honest” feedback about businesses. The thought being that only people who are serious about writing honest referrals will go through the effort and pay the cost. I don't necessarily buy this rationale — it's very easy for anyone to log in under a pseudo-email address and post a seemingly legit review. But for the purpose of this discussion, I'll assume the vast majority are real.
  • Grading. Angie's List allows users to grade contractors on an A-F grading scale, just like school, for key parameters such as price, quality, responsiveness, cost etc… There is also ample area for commentary, which is always helpful. As I mentioned before, as long as the reports are legitimate, they are very helpful.

Yelp: http://www.yelp.com Yelp falls under the category of a “social network.” It's free and easy to join, and you can write reviews on any business from pizzerias to painters. Rating is done by giving a business 1-5 stars. It is a little less structured than Angie's List, but the commentaries are generally more pointed and frank. If someone screws up on a job, they're going to get “Yelped,” which is the equivalent of the old schoolyard dogpile. If nothing else, the commentaries are very creative and often amusing.

Diamond Certified: http://www.diamondcertified.org/ Diamond Certified is an organization that reviews and certifies various businesses based on a rigorous qualification process. These businesses are reviewed on a quarterly basis and must maintain a certain rating to keep their Diamond Certification. The positive of this is the obvious neutrality of the rating — no relatives writing the reviews. The downside is that you'll have far fewer contractors to pick from (maybe that's a good thing?)

In summary, regardless of whether you find your contractor online or through a friend, make sure to take the following steps:

  1. Get additional referrals or customer from the contractor (preferably a live person.)
  2. Interview multiple contractors.
  3. If you can, go see some of the work they've done. Electrical and plumbing is tough, but painting, floors and kitchens are easy to see.

I hope this helps! If you know of any other websites that cater to rating contractors, please post a comment below. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me.

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