As with some of my previous blogs which describe how to find the right designer*, locating a good contractor involves several factors that are not always obvious. In part 1 of this article, I will address the reliability, or lack thereof, of home improvement professional search engines, most notably Angie's List and Home Advisor (previously known as Service Magic).
It may interest some to know that sites such as Angie's List and Home Advisor do not have strict criteria for the contractors that are listed, despite their claims on TV commercials. The main thing you get out of these sites is a background check. Obviously, the quality and trustworthiness of a contractor (of any sort) involves significantly more than an absence of criminal history.
Another thing to note is that Angie's List charges the consumer to view contractors and specialists who undergo an extremely minimal vetting process. Basically if you have a license and bond, and pass a background check, you are "qualified" in the eyes of Angie's List.
As a designer, I was stunned when I applied to be listed on Angie's List, and it required no more than my business license and resale license (plus description and photos). It didn't involve Angie's List calling and verifying a list of references, or a background check. I was signed up in about 15 minutes.
As far as Home Advisor, it's free, but there is a reason. The contractors PAY to bid a job. They are required to undergo a background check, provide license and bond information and references (who may or may not be verified), but that is about it. How it works is when you request a quote on a service, multiple contractors are offered the option to pay to get your contact information and job details. And when a contractor is willing to PAY to get the CHANCE to talk to a potential lead, it means they are not busy, which means they are not in demand, which means they are probably not the best.
It is important to look at reviews, and make sure there are at LEAST a few published on any company you are considering. I signed up with Home Advisor years ago (when I was starting out) when it was still Service Magic, and was appalled at how expensive it was just to get a customer's contact info. It was around $35 per lead, which is a lot to pay to just get someone's phone number and/or email address. Furthermore, none of the customers on my list of references reported being contacted by a representative from Service Magic, calling into question the significance of providing references to begin with.
To their credit though, AL and HA are more likely to have legitimate reviews because of the legwork required to post false ones. It is possible to undermine the system enough to post false reviews, but it requires more work than sites like Yelp or Houzz. If you find a company on AL or HA that has, say, a dozen plus reviews that are excellent, chances are they are legit and worth interviewing. Unfortunately, they could turn out to be so busy that they aren't accepting new projects.
Generally speaking, if a contractor is readily available and eager to bid a job during this busy season, it may be cause for concern. If you are considering hiring someone off a search engine, get references and definitely verify their license and bond info with the Contractors State License Board.
Check A License
Follow my blog, and stay tuned for Part 2 of Finding a Good Contractor.
*For help on finding a good designer, see my article What is a "Qualified" Designer?