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How to Use Contractor Referral Websites

Tips for using online resources to get the best contractors for your projects

In a perfect world you'd have a black book filled with the names of reliable contractors who provide top-notch service at a reasonable price—and are thoughtful enough to wipe their boots before entering the house. Realistically, we usually rely on word of mouth, where finding a good plumber or roofer means asking a trusted friend, relative, or neighbor for a reference. But what if this networking fails to uncover a well-recommended pro? At that point, most of us turn to the Internet. Recently, it seems like websites dedicated to connecting contractors with homeowners are all over the web.

Wading through the plethora of websites offering to lead you to a qualified contractor can be daunting, so we've done some homework for you. We've researched contractor referral to create a cheat sheet on what to expect and how to use them successfully to get the best home improvement pro for your money.

Homeowner-to-Homeowner Websites

Angie's List is a nationwide, user-generated rating and referral system. It relies on homeowners to grade and comment on contractors. The site, which launched in 1995, has grown to include over 300 professional categories. In exchange for detailed reports based on other homeowners' experiences with specific contractors in trades such as painting, carpentry, and gutter repair, the site charges users about $50 a year.

Homeowners evaluate contractors in areas like price, quality of work, and professionalism and award them letter grades from A to F—just like your high school report card. As an Angie's List member, you can search for contractors by zip code within your market, select a pro, check out how other homeowners have rated his or her work, and read about their experiences working with the contractor. The website is driven by the experiences of homeowners, and that's a responsibility that users take to heart. “There is this culture of 'I'm supposed to report,'” says Angie's List founder Angie Hicks. “The users understand the list is built by fellow members and they need to report on their experience with a plumber because if they don't someone else won't report on their roofer, and the system falls apart.”

On Angie's List, Penny Cierzan of Minneapolis, MN, found a HVAC contractor with experience working on old homes—perfect to integrate central air conditioning into her 1920s colonial. “I was a little skeptical about joining at first because you have to pay,” says Cierzan. “But after talking with contractors who asked if I've used Angie's List, I figured if they're recommending it when they have no control over what homeowners are saying, I'm going to take a look at it.” To save money and be more involved during a project that doubled their living space, Cierzan and her husband Guy acted as their own general contractors. They turned to Angie's List to hire each of the specialty tradesmen they needed, including a plumber, painter, and roofer. “Using Angie's List, I was comfortable about the quality of the work I would get because I read the experience other people in my area had with (the contractors) before calling,” Cierzan says.

Because contractors are not charged a fee to be listed on the site, they can't buy a top ranking or preferential referrals. A homeowner added Mike Bush, a plumber in Fishers, Indiana, to Angie's List in 2004. He has heard 'I got your name off of Angie's List' ever since. "If you look in the Yellow Pages, you just see the name of a person," says Bush. "If you go to Angie's List you see the same name, and you can read what 25 other people have said about that contractor." That helps give homeowners peace of mind.

Professional-to-Homeowner Websites is a more traditional referral service. You submit a specific project, like the renovation of a 100-square-foot bathroom. A team of former contractors reviews your project for accuracy and submits it to licensed and insured contractors in your area. Then you hear back from local contractors interested in working on the project. Response time varies, but typically within 24 hours you'll have been contacted by at least three contractors.

Use of the site is free to homeowners; it's the contractors who pay for the service. Contractors who fit the licensing and insurance qualifications of can pay yearly dues to be "certified" by the site, which entitles them to pay additional money for leads on projects submitted by homeowners. Contractors can also pay more for premium placement in the website's contractor directory, which is visible to site visitors and includes homeowner-generated reviews and ratings.

Pro-to-homeowner referral sites similar to include:

HomeAdvisor: Matches homeowners with prescreened pros and also allows users to comment on contractors.

NeedContractor: Users submit the details of a project and are contacted within 48 hours by at least 4 interested contractors.

Bidclerk: Users submit the details of a project and are contacted by contractors bidding to do the work.

ReliableRemodeler: Users submit the details of a project first from 21 popular home improvement categories.

A legitimate contractor will usually want to see a larger project in person before giving you a quote. For quick routine projects, like fixing a running toilet or replacing an outlet, a preliminarily visit might not be necessary, but you can get a good feel for a contractor's professionalism by phone. Use sites like Angie's List and as stepping-stones toward finishing larger projects, and do not rush into hiring the first contractor you call or that contacted you. Experienced contractors can offer insights into hidden costs you might have missed when they see the project in person. Reading homeowner reports on a contractor beforehand can put you at ease before meeting them.

Once a project is underway, the better sites offer customer support—staffed by real people. Jamie Weiss had an extensive renovation done on her Statesville, North Carolina, house that involved everything from new floors and painting to wiring and plumbing. With a general contractor scheduling the sub-contractors, there were a few mishaps along the way. “I called, and their agents discussed the problem with me and gave me the confidence to explain myself professionally to the contractor,” says Weiss. “If the contractor was late, the website would call them for me.” Angie's List goes even further, actually stepping in to settle disputes between homeowners and contractors.

Questions to Ask When Considering a Contractor Referral Website

Who is paying? Check the FAQ section of a referral website to see if the user pays or if contractors pay to be listed. Typically, if a contractor pays to be listed, he or she can pay a premium to appear closer to the top of a search.

How many reports are there? While no site can have comments about every contractor in every trade in town, the good ones will have at least a few contractor options for each trade in your area. Be critical of the reports and ask yourself if they provide useful information or just the company's contact information.

Are the contractors licensed? Most reputable sites only list contractors that have licenses and insurance, but both of these can expire without the website administrators' knowledge. Always ask for a contractor's paperwork and run it against your local or state licensing board's current list of contractor licenses.

Do the contractors offer a bid in person? Though some standard projects, like installing an outlet or replacing a toilet, do not require a preliminary visit, a legitimate contractor typically will not bid on a large project without seeing it in person first.

Trade Association Websites:

Also helpful in your search for contractors are trade association websites. Among these are:

National Association of the Remodeling Industry: Find a NARI-certified remodeler by entering your zip code.

National Kitchen & Bath Association: Find a NKBA-certified kitchen and bath designer by entering your zip code.

National Association of Home Builders: Find an NAHB-registered contractor using the directory of professional remodelers, with plenty of good information for anyone starting a project.

Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association: Find a contractor registered with the PHCC by punching in your zip code.

National Roofing Contractors Association: Find a contractor registered with the NRCA by punching in your zip code.

National Electrical Contractors Association: Find a NECA-registered contractor by zip code.