How Do You Find Good Home Improvement Contractors?

This is a question for my readers who are also homeowners. Help me out here. How do you find good contractors for home improvements and repairs?

I know the standard answer is "ask your friends and neighbors." But how do they know if someone is good? I’ve used a few different people for different things for my home but if someone asks me, I will have to say "I’m not sure" because I have no basis on which to evaluate their quality of work or whether their prices were reasonable. For each kind of work, there are perhaps hundreds of service people in my local area. For example my garage door opener broke a while ago. I found somebody on Yahoo! Local. He fixed it and charged me $120. It’s working now — that I can tell. But did he use a cheap part that’s likely to break again in a year or two? Could another person have fixed it for $60? I have no idea. Yes you can get estimates from a few people for comparison, but how do you know if the few people you get estimates from are not all well above average? To borrow an analogy from investing in mutual funds, if you only look at prices from Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney and Putnam, you may think you are paying a fair price. You will never know you should invest with Vanguard. And if materials are involved, how do you know if you are comparing apples to apples? How do you know if the low bidder is not short-changing you with shoddy materials? I feel like I’m totally in the dark when I hire service people for my home.

I know there are a few places people rate and post reviews on service providers. Angie’s List is one of them. Even there the providers typically don’t have many reviews. Should I hire someone based on only 10 reviews? I question whether the reviewers are qualified to give a review if they are in the dark just like I am. It’s like blind leading blind. I also have a problem with having to pay Angie’s List in order to read reviews. I’m so used to people sharing information for free. That’s what the Internet is about, right? That’s why I sometimes looks on Yahoo! Local and Yelp.

If you are a homeowner, how do you find good service people and how do you know if the price is fair?

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  1. nathank says

    Trial and error 🙁 I’ve had a hard enough time even finding contractors that do a “good job”, let alone worrying about price or quality of their products. Most of the ones I’ve worked with are HORRIBLE and do a shoddy job, often causing more problems or damage. I try to test them out with small work before giving them larger jobs. After about 6 years I finally have a plumber and electrician I trust to do a good job at a good price. But it took probably 4-5 very poor plumbers and 4-5 very poor electricians before I found my current ones. There are some REALLY BAD contractors out there. Good luck, hopefully somebody else will post a better suggestion.

  2. Anonymous says

    I have a friend, who does flooring. When I need a contractor (plumber, electrician, etc) I ask him. He works with all of them on a regular basis and they all know each other. The professional reputation of a contractor is much more visible within their own community. All you need is one person you can trust and who is in business of general contracting.

  3. jimslade says

    It’s not magic… same way you find good employees or anything else. You ask someone who would know and double check your source when possible with someone else who would know. So in our case we used our real estate agent, who knows lots of people in the business doing remodels. She heard about a great contractor and gave us the referral. We checked his references (3-4 people he did jobs for, and also the guy who he buys cabinets and fixtures from). We also got 2 other bids as ‘sanity checks’ to make sure he was within ‘range’. He wasn’t the lowest bidder, but we were willing to pay a little more to use him. As anonymous said, I can now go to my contractor to ask for specific recommendations on people he works with (although I have his flooring, electrical, painter, granite/tile, and plumber now). This was for a ~80k remodel. It’s not magic, it just takes a little work. You might not go through as much effort for a small job, but then the risk is lower then as well…

  4. Anonymous says

    I’ve used them for getting bids and reviews for about 3 small home projects now with great success. For no cost, you get an idea about the work and available bids out there.

  5. Harry Sit says

    Anon, Jim – Thank you. How do I find this one guy in the trade whom I can trust? That seems to be the key …

    2nd anon – Service Magic is like Lending Tree. It’s a lead generation service for contractors. Contractors don’t have to be good or fair-priced. They only have to pay Service Magic for the leads.

    Maybe I’m just too suspecting. Where’s Consumer Reports for contractors? I know it’s impossible because contractors are so fragmented and you can’t really have two guys come in and do the same job twice and compare. It just seems odd to me so many people are spending hundreds and even thousands of dollars pretty much on faith. Are there general contractors community forums where they talk about which plumbers or electricians they use?

  6. Don says

    And this is precisely why I did my last remodel myself. Admittedly it was a $1500 remodel, not something large. It took me 3 weeks to complete, although the grapevine tells me that I’d have been lucky to find anyone locally who could have even started in that timeframe.

    It really gave me a clue about the corners that were cut when the house was constructed.

  7. Ducks says

    We did a major remodel on our house two years ago. We found our contractor through the “Home & Remodeling Expo” — one of those large trade shows. We also found a guy to get rid of the moss off our roof at that show. So that may be another place to pick up some names.

    We had a gem of a carpenter on our project, and all of the subcontractors they used were fantastic. We’ve since hired their subs for other smaller projects as well.

    If you live in my area, I’d be happy to share names. 🙂

  8. Ted says

    Contractors and mutual funds are not a fair comparison. In labor I find you usually get what you pay for, so trying to minimize costs is usually going to be a bad idea. Besides, tfb, someone like you should never sweat anything less than $1,000 more than doing basic due diligence. By that I mean find someone with a good reputation that can get the job done right and gives a reasonable price (this can be easily checked).

  9. jimslade says

    “How do I find this one guy in the trade whom I can trust?”

    Again, not a mystery. Ask others you know who have had work done . Ask your real estate agent. if the agent is worth anything, then he/she should be able to help.

    You gotta know people, and you have to ask. if you aren’t willing to do that, then i’m afraid you are stuck.

  10. Clivus Multrum says

    Go to three lumberyards, three banks, and three realtors and ask them who is good. That will eliminate the guys that don’t pay their own bills.

  11. Debbie M says

    I love this post. Excellent question.

    I have a few answers.

    For a roofer, I got estimates from three name-brand sounding places and three locals, and picked a guy who sounded good and was charging less because it was during a drought (low demand, because no one knows if their roof is leaking). He seemed to do a good job (after the first rain, you can at least tell if it’s a horrible job) and did everything he said and cleaned up, so I recommend him.

    For a plumber, the first guy I asked wanted to replace my faucet with something I hated but which was all sparkly and expensive, so I asked my old apartment manager to let me contact his repair guys so I could talk to them. They agreed that this new faucet was stupid (the kind where turning up the volume is the same as turning up the heat). So I got another plumber out and he did just what I wanted–replaced what I had, even though he had to make an extra trip to the warehouse. So I was recommending him until I could no longer contact him.

    I’m still looking for a good plumber, electrician, and appliance repair guy–the ones I’ve worked with have been horrible.

    One idea I heard was to ask your doctor, lawyer, or other highly-paid person you sort of know because they’re likely to at least be able to afford such things!

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