How to find a reputable contractor

How to find a reputable contractor

You’d think the Internet would make it easier

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Finding reliable, reputable contractors can be hard work (Getty Images / Amy Eckert)

Finding reliable, reputable contractors can be hard work (Getty Images / Amy Eckert)

Houses need work. I know. I own a few. But when I have a repair job I can’t always rely on my husband. I wish I could. He’s a fantastic finishing carpenter and a reputable, reliable general contractor, but these qualities also mean he’s busy. Very busy.

Of course, I’m lucky. Because my husband is a general contractor he knows tradesmen for a variety of repair jobs. Got a problem with your copper pipes? We have a plumber. Have a few holes in your wall? We know great tapers and drywallers. And I have to say that our electricians are some of the best (and sweetest) in the business. But what if we weren’t a household full of construction tools and know-how? What if we had to find reliable and reputable contractors and we didn’t have these professional tradesmen on speed-dial?

That’s when I started my search. I found some great advice but no matter what I read I found  flaws in the foundation, plugged pipes, leaks in the boat. Sad truth is: There’s a real disconnect when trying to find reliable home renovation contractors and repairmen.

The problem is that we’re all trying to avoid paying for poor workmanship or, worse still, finding out that the cost-efficient handyman we hired actually did more damage than good.

So, how can a home owner find reliable and reputable contractors and tradesmen? Here’s a few tips when finding a contractor:

1) Do: Piggy-back on other people’s due-diligence

When we ask friends for contractor recommendations, we’re really piggy-backing on their due diligence. We’re assuming that if they feel comfortable about recommending a plumber, electrician or general contractor it’s because they’ve done their own due diligence. This is probably the best way to find a contractor or licensed tradesman so you’re first order of business is: ask your friends and family for referrals.

2) Do: Look for a sign

I mean this literally: look for signs. When you’re driving, walking or biking through your neighbourhood keep your eyes peeled for signs that advertise contractors working in your area. Very often these contractors have already been vetted by the home owner (see Tip #1: Piggy-back on other people’s due-diligence) and, more importantly, these contractors don’t mind putting a name to their work. If a contractor is willing to display a sign that includes their name and contact info (either a phone number or website) then you know they are proud of their work, and they don’t mind hearing from you, the would-be client.

3) Do: Get professional referrals

If you’re friends and family don’t know a good tradesman or contractor consider expanding your referral search to professionals you’ve done work with in the past. You could ask, for instance, your local realtor, lawyer, banker, even your financial planner. All these professionals will come into contact with other professionals, including contractors. Since it’s their business to keep their clients happy they have a stronger incentive to only recommend reputable renovation contractors.

4) Do: Go online (but only as a preliminary search)

Now, here’s where the wheels fall off the cart. While I’m a big fan of online searches, I’m not a big fan of using online referral or aggregate sites in isolation. And it’s those last two words that are so important.

Fact is, I know a bus-load of people that have hired great plumbers, carpenters or general handymen using these sites. I could also fill another bus—and not a short bus—of people that have nothing but complaints regarding a so-called professional they’d found online. For instance, The Star ran a sad, sad story about a family who ended up with an open pit in their backyard after the contractor they’d found on HomeStars.com declared bankruptcy.  (Full disclosure: My husband’s firm is also on Homestars.com, so I’m not trying to say that all listings are from shady characters.)

The problem isn’t with the referral sites, per se, it’s that online sites can be gamed. As recently as November 2014, CBC Marketplace aired a show on the business of pumping up testimonials and fake reviews.

Sadly, the business of online reviews created another brand of business—one that specializes in buying, finding or creating online testimonials and reviews. It’s a business my husband was forced to reckon with when he joined an extremely popular site early last year. Shortly after uploading his company information he started getting weekly calls and emails from the website’s personnel. They were trying to sell him on their “online testimonial” service. By paying a fee, they would call his former clients, friends and associates and get referrals, which they would then post online on behalf of their clients. Or so he was told. On the whole, there’s nothing wrong with this type of service but my husband didn’t think it was a wise way to spend his limited marketing dollars. He does little marketing as it is and when he does it’s very targeted, making a general catch-all referral website pretty low on his marketing plan. So he opted to forego the service. Within a few months—and despite a handful of genuine testimonials from repeat clients—my husband’s company listing disappeared from all general contractor searches on this website. I guess he didn’t pay enough to be included in the referral service.

5) Do: Check Better Business Bureau (and go one better)

So why not skip the online referral sites and go straight to the Better Business Bureau (BBB)? Because it’s a similar set-up. The only way a business shows up in any BBB listing is when there’s a complaint (and even this can be removed if the client is satisfactorily compensated). Or when a business pays to be listed. You read right: pays to be listed. Once again, it’s pay to play.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check a company out on your local BBB site—just take it as a good sign if there’s no mention of the company on the site.

Also, while you’re online go to Canadian Legal Information Institute (canlii.org). This website records all court proceedings from across Canada. Type in the name of your proposed contractor and tradesman. If the business or person name pops up its because they’ve been involved in a court case—anything from a divorce to a car accident to a job-related situation. Click and read on the case before deciding whether or not you’d like to hire this person.

6) Do: Search provincial or trade associations (but realize their limitations)

One final place you may have luck when searching for reputable tradesmen is through municipal, provincial or trade associations. The Ontario College of Trades offers a public registry that tells you whether or not a person is certified and in good standing. But keep in mind, membership is compulsory for only 22 trades—including electricians, plumbers, crane operators, and hair stylists.

This means your neighbourhood contractor or handyman probably won’t be registered. At present there are no incentives or tangible benefits for non-compulsory trades, such as general contractors, to register with these provincial associations.

For example, my husband could voluntarily pay $138 per year to register his business with the Ontario College of Trades. He would get a paper plaque and a pat on the back. That’s it. No inclusion in the online registry, no ability for a home owner to search his company name.

Other people have also run into more serious trouble concerning these provincial associations. For instance an Alberta electrician risks losing his Red Seal certificate if he doesn’t pay the Ontario College fee. Problem he lives and works in Alberta.

There’s also a Facebook page that’s home to more than 1,000 tradesmen who openly dislike and criticize the Ontario College of Trades and there are 20,000 members on the Stop the Trades Tax website. Both sites describe the college as a bureaucratic layer that’s the equivalent of a tax on trade work.

Still, if you’re looking for a plumber or electrician—trades that must register with the Ontario College of Trades—you can go to College’s online public registry or call 647-847-3000, or toll-free at 1-855-299-0028.

Other associations include  the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and the Toronto-based Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD). Both are national associations with regional divisions that allow members to use the RenoMark logo as a way to brand themselves.  The marketing material explains that the RenoMark logo helps home owners determine if the contractor adheres to the association’s standards and code of ethics—but contractors don’t need to pay an annual fee to an association to adhere to a code of ethics, offer a standard level of quality or warranty their work. In fact, most long-term contractors offer all this and more without any affiliation with an industry association. As one general contractor I spoke to said (anonymously, as he didn’t want any blowback): “The real reason you join is to use a recognizable logo and to be eligible for the association awards, such as Contractor of the Year or Best Renovation Under $50,000. Home owner’s love that sort of stuff.”

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