Finding a Qualified Contractor

You’ve heard the stories.  Contractor wins job.  Contractor takes down payment.  Contractor disappears.

How do you know how to find a great contractor?  Unfortunately there are no guarantees.  What’s worse, some of the rating organizations and agencies sell high ratings to contractors.  Smart consumers approach their home improvement projects with knowledge of what the do’s and the don’ts are.

Some contractors offer what seems to be an impossibly low price.  If it is impossibly low, chances are there is something wrong and you should seriously think “buyer beware”.  Impossibly low prices could mean a couple things.  One possibility is that the contractor isn’t paying their supplier for their materials.  Short of running a credit check on your contractor, you won’t be able to find this information out until you get a bill directly from the contractors supply company informing you that there is an outstanding bill for materials used to improve your home.  Supply companies have the right to receive payment for their materials and if they aren’t paid, they can put a lien on your home.  In these cases there is just one way to protect yourself — get a lien waiver from both your contractor and their supply house.

The Better Business Bureau has, for years, been seen as the number one consumer protection agency.   But keep in mind that every agency has to be funded.  Sadly, the Better Business Bureau, also known as the BBB, sells their ratings.  The BBB is funded through fees charged to contractors  A contractor who pays their annual fees can achieve their top ratings even if they have had several complaints.  That is not to say that the BBB is worthless. Consumers can visit the Better Business Bureau website to check to see if a contractor has had complaints.  If they have had complaints, the site may dismiss these complaints as “administratively closed” or “assumed closed”.   Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a quality contractor because the complaints are closed.   Complaints on the BBB website only stay part of a contractors record for 3 years.  Then the complaint conveniently goes away.

Angie’s List has grown in popularity.  They are consumer funded website, which means that you have to pay a fee to be a member.  Only after you pay a fee can you rate a contractor or read reviews about contractors.  These reviews can be helpful but consumers should keep in mind that other consumers are about 10 times more likely to leave a poor review than they are to leave a positive review.   This could mean that quality contractors may not have any reviews.

ServiceMagic is a web based service which is supported by contractor fees.  When consumers log into their website to find a contractor, they receive three recommended contractors.  ServiceMagic does a criminal background check on the owner of the company and verifies that the company has the proper licenses to do business in their state and carries the required insurance.  It’s a pretty good system, but nothing is perfect.  ServiceMagic provides a single glowing 5-star rating to every contractor who subscribes to their service which isn’t really a review, but certainly looks like one.  Consumers should take a couple extra seconds to click on all three of the contractor recommendations that ServiceMagic sends them.  If a contractor only has one review it does not mean the contractor is bad, it simply may mean that the contractor is new to ServiceMagic and does not yet have an of their own ratings.   Contractors with the “Certified 5-Stars” have earned at least 5 ratings from customers that are 4.5 stars or better.

Referrals are another way to find a contractor.  Friends or family can be helpful but even when a contractor has done great work for one person, it’s not a guarantee that they’ll do good for you.   Sometimes even a contractor needs a contractor.  Just a few years ago, I needed a concrete contractor.  A customer gave me a glowing recommendation.  The contractor came to my home, gave me a fair price, required his half down which I gladly paid, busted up my existing patio with sledge hammers and pick axes, then turned off his cell phone, moved and I couldn’t even sue him for return of my $1700 down payment.

There may be no perfect way to find a contractor but consumers should never be afraid to ask questions.  What procedure does the contractor use to perform the home improvement?  What brands do they carry?  What are the efficiency ratings?  Are they asking questions that are aimed at diagnosing a problem rather than simply replacing a product with another product?  Do they have customer testimonials?

A smart consumer should consider their needs prior to a visit from a contractor.  Assess your own home improvement needs but be open to different ideas that can solve problems and improve the quality of your life.  Prior to a visit from a contractor, assess your budget and give some thought as to what kind of contractor you need.  Approach a visit with a contractor openly without a pre-conceived notion of product types and you may find yourself smiling at your new home improvement for years to come.

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