The Internet is good for a lot of things, but not for finding a contractor. Many quick-buck operators start online contractor websites that are long on promises and short on integrity or value.
Just to be clear: There's a difference between online directories, and websites put up by individual contractors to promote their work.
Some online contractor directories may be fine, but many are a joke. In my opinion, they're the worst way to find a contractor for your home renovation project.
I found a contractor friend of mine listed on one site. This particular site says all of its contractors adhere to a strict code of ethics and are carefully screened before being listed. I called my friend to ask him about it. He didn't even know he was listed on the site, he'd never been "screened," and he sure hadn't signed "a code of ethics."
The website also has a rating system that looks like it's made up from the opinions of the contractor's customers. My contractor friend was rated five stars -- the best possible. Don't get me wrong -- he deserves the rating, but I asked myself, if he didn't even know he was on the site, how did his customers know to rate him there? It's clear to me that in order to fill its list, the online directory just grabbed some contractors' names and, without their knowledge or consent, added them.
So I called the company promoting the site. One of the reps explained that every contractor starts out with a five-star rating, but that if a complaint is lodged, the rating would be changed. I'm not sure how many complaints they need to get, or how many people have to get ripped off or be disappointed before a contractor is taken off the site. But obviously, they haven't received many calls, because every Canadian contractor I could find on that site was rated five stars.
I am in regular contact with a homeowner who won a new kitchen at a home show promotion last year by this same Internet contractor directory. The directory made a big splash at the show, and got a lot of homeowners to enter the contest by signing on the website. But almost a year later, the winner is still waiting for his kitchen. He's pretty much resigned to the fact that it will never happen -- in fact, the kitchen contractor whose services he "won" no longer returns his calls.
I'm not surprised. Here's what probably happened: The online directory talked the contractor into agreeing to do the kitchen renovation for free in return for a "preferred" position on the website. They probably promised the contractor he'd get more business than he could handle as a result of the promotion.
But the business never materialized, so now he's stuck with doing an expensive kitchen for nothing. He's thinking of ways to get out of doing the work, while the online directory, which has already gotten what it wanted out of the deal, has washed its hands of it all, leaving the "prize winner" empty-handed.
One of the attractions of some Internet directories is that you can list your project on the site and have contractors submit "blind" bids for the job. That means the listed contractors can send in quotes for the work, but can't contact you until you want them to. Some homeowners feel more secure this way, because they think they won't be "harassed" by sales calls from contractors. (Believe me, good contractors don't have time to harass you with sales calls -- they're too busy.)
This could be the worst way possible to tender work. You can't provide enough detail in an online tender to get a quote that has any meaning. People are quoted prices so low that they are lured with "a deal." Then, once the contractor is called in, they can get on with the real business of quoting the job properly, by telling the truth and breaking down the actual cost of the job.
But misleading a client is a very bad way to begin a healthy client/contractor relationship.
A proper quote needs plans, and a site visit, and tons of communication between the contractor and the homeowner to understand exactly what needs to be done. You can't get that online. Any contractor who believes online tendering is possible doesn't know a thing about this business.
A lot of these online directories are willing to borrow the reputations of others to improve their profile. More than once, I've had to send a letter to a website to tell it to take my image off the site. I don't endorse any Internet contractor listing. If you see my face on one, you know they don't have my permission and are using my reputation to build their own. And e-mail me with the URL, please.
I've said it many times: Finding a good contractor is hard work. Don't go looking for services that claim to make that work easier for you -- it's the hard work that you put into the process that helps get the job off on the right foot. Leaving that work undone, or leaving it to others, is a recipe for a bad job.
Mike Holmes is the host of Holmes on Homes on HGTV. E-mail Mike at mikeholmes@holmeson-
homes.com or go to http://www.holmesonhomes.com