How to Find and Evaluate a Reputable Contractor Online
The monetization of the internet has really changed how we find and evaluate local businesses, especially local contractors and home improvement pros. In an industry where even the smallest project can be in the thousands of dollars, getting a real feel for a business through reliable online research is both necessary and difficult.
If you are in the market for a contractor and want an evaluation process that cuts through pay-to-play online reviews and puts you in control of your home improvement project, we’ve got some tips to help you get started. We’ve ranked some specific sites as either Trust, A Mixed Bag, or Steer Clear.
Online Contractor Directories
Contractor directories have exploded since the initial success of Angie’s List in the early 2000’s. These sites grab data and buy lists from states and mailing list clearinghouses and create basic free listings for home improvement companies that can be upgraded or “featured” for a price. Oftentimes, reviews on directory sites can be telling, especially negative reviews, but the pay-to-play model can control who and what you are exposed to while searching.
- Porch.com (Trust)
- Houzz Pro (Trust)
- Angie’s List (A Mixed Bag)
- Pro Referral by Home Depot (A Mixed Bag)
- YELP (Steer Clear)
Lead Service Providers
These sites collect information from service-seeking prospects and try to connect them with providers in their area. They collect a fee for making the connection. These providers are paid on a cost-per-name basis. If they are able to get your name and some information on your project, the contractor will pay them for each name. Additionally, these names are often given to 3-5 contractors in order to get homeowners sufficient estimates to “keep ’em honest”. Most good contractors are catching onto to these lead generation tactics and staying away from these sites making it less likely for a homeowner to have a good experience.
In spite of the vastness of the internet, we really do spend most of our time on just a few key websites. More than 2/3 of searches come through Google and more than half of all Americans sign in to Facebook on a monthly basis. They’ve built trust with their user base and, for the most part, include a certain degree of authentication and identity verification when submitting a review or complaint. Facebook and Google require verified accounts to submit reviews and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) offers anonymous, but verified, user reviews in addition to complaint resolution for all businesses. These are good reference sites for reviews, especially the information in more detailed reviews.
There’s also money in reviews. Especially good reviews. 82% of Amazon users give more credence to online product reviews more than their neighbors recommendation. Several companies have latched onto this line of thinking and created controlled review paths that present as 360 degree reviews. They give the illusion that many users have honestly reviewed the contractor. In actuality, the users offering these reviews probably did have a positive experience. What is questionable is that companies employing these review sites can review wash by controlling the reviews that can be seen by the public. This results manufactured and inflated review ratings.
In many states, you can review contractor licensing requirements and search online databases to verify a contractor’s credentials. For instance, in the State of Wisconsin, in order to pull a building permit for a property other than your own, a contractor license is required. In order to obtain a license initially, an individual must obtain a Dwelling Contractor Qualifier and be associated with a business that has a Dwelling Contractor License. Both licenses are required and necessitate continuing education credits on an annual basis to maintain.
You can lookup an individual or business using the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services Credential/Licensing Search here: https://app.wi.gov/licensesearch
You’ll need to lookup the business by Dwelling Contractor Qualifier’s personal name or the Dwelling Contractor’s business name.
Lawsuits and Business History
In Wisconsin, every business is required to be registered with the state. You can verify when a business was first active in the state and what their legal name and who represents the business by using the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions Corporation Search website here: https://www.wdfi.org/apps/CorpSearch/Search.aspx
You can search by legal entity name or registered agent. The biggest advantage to using a system like this is that it can help you verify if the company story the contractor told you is actually true.
In addition to business history, you can use public court databases like Wisconsin’s Circuit Court Access Program (CCAP). This can help you determine if the business has any history of contractor fraud, criminal violations, or if they have a history of suing clients. Reasonable, ethical contractors are less likely to have a pattern of lawsuits or criminal activity.
Note: Sites like CCAP log all circuit court activity including employee garnishments and dismissed lawsuits/charges. Take special precaution when interpreting this information.
There are several organizations that can serve as a resource and check for businesses. These trade groups operate to promote ethics and education in the home remodeling and home building industries. Upon application, businesses submit to a background check and must meet certain ethical and operational benchmarks to achieve entry. Being a member of a trade organization also shows a commitment to improving the industry and continually challenging to raise the bar on minimum standards including safety, legislation, ethics, and licensing. Through local chapters across the country, these associations can help provide guidance for homeowners, contractors, and professional service providers related to the building products industry.
It is possible to lookup a company violation history with OSHA. You can see historical data going back 10 years and see if your company has any repeated incidents or patterns of non-compliance with safety regulations. https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.html
Additionally, if you have a home that was built before 1978 that may have lead paint, you should be working with an EPA lead-certified contractor. There are also special licenses for other specific health-safety abatement or removal. If you are having specialty work done, it is important to verify that your contractor has the correct licensure or certification.
Asbestos Abatement Contractor Search (WI only)
A few takeaway points:
– You should be able to verify who someone says they are.
– Contractors can enhance their online identity, but it’s hard for them to completely hide a bad reputation.
– Use online research as a “gut check” to validate or curb concerns.
– Don’t be afraid to reach out to reputable organizations for help determining a contractors past.
Other articles about online reviews worth checking out:
The End of Angie’s List (11/16)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Lindberg, CR is a partner in Lion Tree Group, a marketing agency in Madison, WI. His expertise is in multi-platform brand messaging with a focus on inspiring homeowners. As an industry insider, he has walked the walk and developed a winning strategy from experience with one of Wisconsin’s largest remodeling companies. His agency specializes in digital design and branding face lifts. He regularly blogs about the remodeling industry on his company’s blog: The Bark and Roar.