How to find a reputable contractor

You’d think the Internet would make it easier

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Online only.

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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.”

Read more from Romana King at Home Owner on Facebook »

13 comments on “How to find a reputable contractor

  1. Romana, I wished you had contacted BBB before you wrote your story. I would have been happy to walk you through our complaints and rating process. It is NEVER possible to have a complaint removed from a company’s BBB Business Review. Every complaint we receive is processed exactly the same, whether the business is BBB Accredited or not. You simply cannot buy a good grade (we expelled our largest local BBB over this issue).

    When we receive a complaint, the first thing we do is contact the business to verify that the complainant is an actual customer (which differentiates us from many online review sites), and we give the business a chance to respond (another differentiator). Whenever possible, we want the business and the customer to work it out, because that’s best for a trusted marketplace. But if they can’t, we offer free dispute resolution services.

    If the business makes a good faith effort to resolve the problem, that counts in a positive way toward the rating (grade) on their Business Review on bbb.org. Only if they fail to respond, or if there is a serious pattern of complaints, does it have a negative impact on their grade. We do not punish companies for having unhappy customers. We understand it’s not possible to please all of the people all of the time. What makes a difference for us (and for the business’s grade) is their willingness to try to work it out with their customers. The details behind every grade are noted in the Business Review, along with details of the complaints, the company’s response, any customer reviews we’ve received, and any government action we know about.

    Businesses that are BBB Accredited are required to respond to complaints and they cannot have a grade below B or we revoke their accreditation. All of our services are free to consumers, and we also process complaints for all businesses, accredited or not. Consumers can feel confident when they see the BBB seal that the business is committed to BBB’s Standards for Trust. Check out more than 4.7 millions businesses, include well over one million home contractors, at bbb.org.

    BTW, congratulate your husband! I couldn’t find him in our database, which likely means we’ve never received a complaint about his business. If he fills out our Standard Business Questionnaire, he’ll probably have a very good grade in his BBB Business Review.

    Best regards,
    Katherine Hutt
    Director of Communications
    Council of Better Business Bureaus

    Reply

  2. I liked your tip to search provincial or trade associations to find a good construction contractor. My house needs some excavation work done, so I need a special team of contractors who do quality work for their clients. It seems like searching a trade association would help me find good contractors to take on the job.
    http://www.hawkerconstruction.ca/en

    Reply

  3. My house is definitely one of those that needs work done. My wife and I have been thinking that we should get a general contractor to get some work done. I like your idea of getting professional referrals. That could be a good way to ensure you get the expertise you need.

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  4. I really like your first tip on finding a reputable contractor. I could really use a contractor in the next few weeks, but don’t have a lot of time to do all of the necessary research myself. It’d be a lot of avoided stress to get some good recommendations from friends that have done that research and hired someone in the past. I’ll have to ask around and see if I can get any good suggestions from anyone.
    http://www.ccsl.ca/en/

    Reply

  5. Piggy backing off other people’s recommendation is the way to go. I had some work done recently by a contractor I found online and it turned out to be a disaster. I told my friend about the work and she set me up with a contractor who had done good work for her. Everything got worked out but I wished I hadn’t spent the money on it twice!

    http://www.seekahoo.com

    Reply

  6. Hello Romana,

    I’m a total newbie when it comes to renovations and hiring contractors. Like most questions I have, an internet search is usually my first instinct. I knew I was crossing into unfamiliar territory the second I thought of hiring a professional to renovate. I needed a map or a guide to help with those first steps. Your article was among the first batch of informational sources I collected and it has been helpful, informative, straightforward and, above all, clearly written. I now have specific advice to consider but the real advantage is realizing that the planning stage is much more vigourous than I initially thought. I know I have much, much more research to complete but I’m off to a good start.

    Thank you!

    Also, if I may add, you have a great style of writing. Thumbs up!

    Reply

  7. These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to ask friends for recommendations when looking for an electrician. My husband and I are renovating the kitchen, and we need some electrical work done. We’ll definitely ask some of our friends if they’ve used anyone they liked working with as a starting point. Thanks for the great post! http://suncoastelectric.com/

    Reply

  8. You want to have a good contractor because they are going to ultimately determine what your home is going to look like. I like the idea of looking for signs. That isn’t a bad idea to find a contractor for your home. https://servitt.com/

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  9. I’m looking for a general contractor for an upcoming project so your information will be very helpful. I’ll follow your tips and look for signs in my area as well as getting professional referrals. I’ll also need to check out local trade organizations as well. Thanks for your advice.

    Reply

  10. My wife and I are trying to find a general contractor right now. I really appreciated these tips, especially because we haven’t been able to find a good one yet. I never had thought about the idea of asking other professionals that I have worked with in the past for referrals. This seems like a very wise thing to do, so thanks for sharing this! http://cochisetech.net

    Reply

  11. Thank you for the help. I am going to need to hire an electrical contractor soon. I like the idea of getting professional referrals. If I do not know any of those people already, what would be the best way to obtain those referrals?

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  12. Thanks for the help. I am looking for a general contractor for a project coming up. I think that professional referrals, as you suggested, would be a great help. Is that one of the best ways to be sure that the contractor has a good reputation? http://www.bryanclodfelterconstruction.com/renovation-services

    Reply

  13. I really like your tip to ask the right questions. If you don’t ask the right questions you wont get the answers you are looking for! I especially like how you say to ask how much of their business is referral work. That is a good indicator of how happy clients are with their work. Thanks for all these helpful tips!

    Reply

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