Take time to find good contractor

The Baltimore Sun


All this rain might be great for your garden, but it's doing a number on homes. We're talking about leaky roofs, wet basements, clogged gutters and precariously hanging tree limbs. If those troubles aren't enough to give you heartburn and anxiety, the task of finding a good plumber, roofer, or tree service could just send you over the edge.

What's the best way to find a home contractor? Is word of mouth best? Is the Better Business Bureau your only shot at finding a reputable company? Do you open the phone book and try eenie-meenie-miney-moe?

The A:

The first rule in hiring a home contractor is: Don't panic.

Panic makes you think less clearly. Panic makes you rush your decisions. Panic causes you to hire companies without checking around first.

We understand that under dire circumstances, such as when your basement is slowly turning into your swimming pool, it might be hard not to freak out. Take a deep breath, though, and do your homework.

Remember that no one source of information is going to save you from hiring a bad company. Don't just take your neighbor's word. Don't just look to the BBB. Don't just pick the first company you see in the phone book. I repeat, do not rely on any one source.

When searching for a contractor, it's best to ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. If you can't find referrals from people you know, try companies such as ServiceMagic at www.servicemagic.com or Angie's List at www.angieslist.com. ServiceMagic is a free site for homeowners where service professionals, who pay a fee to be listed, are given ratings by other homeowners. Angie's List, which charges a membership fee for homeowners, offers a list of member ratings and reviews on local contractors. Companies do not pay to be included on Angie's List.

Now, once you've got a short list of companies you're interested in hiring, the next step is checking the background of each company.

First head to the Department of Licensing, Labor and Regulation Web site at http://www.dllr.state.md.us to make sure your company is licensed and insured. Check the BBB of Greater Maryland Web site for complaints on your company at http://www.baltimore.bbb.org. Then go to the Maryland Judiciary Court Search at http://casesearch.courts.state.md.us and plug in the names of your companies to make sure none of them are getting sued for bad work.

If you've still got some companies left after all that research, you've still got some more work ahead of you.

Call each contractor and get at least three bids for the work you need. Don't automatically pick the lowest bid since it can be a sign of inferior work, but don't pick the highest price since it's not always a sign of the best work. To find out which is true, ask for a list of homeowners and numbers from each company. Call those people and find out if they can recommend that company's work.

If you've finally found the perfect company for you, don't mess it up now. Make sure you get a contract that spells out the work that needs to be completed in detail. Specify what materials are needed and make sure you have approval over any changes. Last, but not least, work out a payment schedule based on completion of each phase of the work. Do not pay the entire cost of the project upfront. If the company demands all the money at once, that's a red flag. If it asks for a down payment, offer 10 percent or $1,000, whichever is lower.

Do not pay the final installment until the job has passed inspection.

There is no foolproof way to avoid bad companies and their shoddy practices, but taking the time beforehand to do your research can save you money and headaches down the road. Now go get that leak fixed.


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