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Ask Chicagoist: How Do I Find a Good Contractor?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on May 29, 2008 5:26PM

2008_05_askremodel.jpgDear Chicagoist,

I need some help with some basic renovations, but I don't really know anyone to ask or where to begin. How do I avoid being ripped off? The number of contractors out there is staggering. How do I get someone who does good work but isn't so popular they charge ridiculous rates?

Useless with a Hammer

Dear Useless,

Are you us? Are we you? Honestly, we promise we didn't write this question ourselves -- but we really could have. Renovation and remodeling is a daunting task, and if you don't have the time or skills to do it up D.I.Y.-style (who does?), you're going to be faced with the task of hiring someone. Probably someone you don't really know but are trusting with your greatest commodity.

It's all about word-of-mouth, but you're probably facing what we're facing; you don't really know anyone who's done much remodeling or renovation work. It never hurts to ask, though! You never know who you know who knows someone who knows someone who made this really cool kitchen island. And if rumors on the street (or in the media) are correct, contractors need work these days.

So your friends are all derelicts who don't even know what load-bearing wall is, not to mention how to find someone who can remove it and put the proper support beam in its place. To the web we go!

We like browsing the Better Business Bureau website for companies close to home. You can look for contractors by name, location, or accreditation status. BBB Accreditation is nice to see, not because it means the company does good work, but they will work with you to resolve any complaints (which pretty much translates into doing pretty good work) -- they have to abide by the final decision of the BBB's formal dispute settlement process. They do, however, pay for the privilege of being accredited. But even if they're not, you can still see such handy info as whether there have been any complaints against the company, and whether they did anything to resolve the complaint. Very valuable information!

And of course, there's Angie's List. We really like Angie's List. And not just because they're a WBEZ sponsor (although that helps, we admit it). Angie's List is a paid directory of home service and improvement workers (meaning you pay for the subscription). All the reviews are generated from subscribers, so it relies on the motivation of all of us to write about contractors we use in order to be any good, so that's something to take with a grain of salt: people are good at writing obnoxious YouTube comments, but not as good at writing actually valuable reviews -- positive and negative.

And nothing in this world is without controversy. Sure, we've found good people using Angie's List, but some people complain that contractors get all their friends to sign up and write glowing reviews. We figure if the contractor has that many friends willing to shell out $6 a month and write reviews, they probably aren't all that bad. The idea is that only companies with a "B" rating or better can pay to advertise in their monthly magazine or issue coupons, people affiliated with the company can't write reviews, and a staff of editors pays close attention to the reviews submitted and only allows relevant ones to count towards the rating. Corrupt or not, we've had good luck with it.

Also consider asking at your neighborhood's Chamber of Commerce, or other neighborhood or block organization. Someone in your area has to have had to hire someone recently, even if it's not someone who personally know. You might get someone who works in the area often, so would know what sort of things are good for "resale" value in your neighborhood, and what's just way above and beyond what you probably want to do.

So, um, speaking of word-of-mouth -- are there any contractors out there you would recommend to our pal Useless?

Trying to avoid having the roof fall in? Need some advice? Email ask(at)chicagoist(dot)com.