How do you find competent and honest people you can trust to do the home maintenance and repair projects you have? This problem inevitably becomes one of the top concerns of aging homeowners, particularly if they don't have younger family members nearby who can help them. Even projects that were once do-it-yourself snaps become challenging as we age. How can I know how much work my clogged gutters might need when I can't even get up on a ladder to check them out? How do I know what a basement sump pump should cost, fully installed? The list goes on and on.
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Fortunately, a number of organizations have recognized this need—and business opportunity—by building networks of preferred, consumer-recommended home service vendors. The Internet enables the creation of low-cost networks that function as digital neighborhoods, where consumers can comment on good (and bad) home-repair experiences. This creates an invaluable repository of informed judgments on an increasingly deep inventory of service providers. A major national provider is Angie's List, a membership company based in Indianapolis that was started in 1995 in Columbus, Ohio, by Angie Hicks. From one community, the company has grown into 150 markets and more than 750,000 members.
One of the first things you'll want to do when visiting Angie's List is take its tour explaining how the service works. You need to pay for an Angie's List membership before you can review local service providers and consumer feedback in your area. Vendors are included only when consumers report on their work, and you can see lists showing the numbers of vendors by state and area. Membership fees entitle access only to your own area. Smaller and more recently launched markets are less expensive to join, and very new markets may be free for a year. One-year memberships are fully refundable, the company says, so if the service doesn't fit your needs, you can cancel your membership and get all your money back.
You can search for local vendors and see lists by specialty, which include grades based on their Angie's List consumer reports. You'll also be able to see reports on vendor work by members and details of the work they did. In addition, the company has a toll-free call center and offers other offline services, including a magazine that's mailed to members and a dispute-resolution service. "Even the best of intentions don't always work out the way you hope," says Hicks. "So we'll contact the company for them." Vendors can't request or pay for inclusion on Angie's List. Nearly all vendors recognize the goodwill value of being on the list and thus are responsive to member complaints. "The cost to them [of being on the list] is providing good service," Hicks says. Many vendors also offer promotional discounts to Angie's List members.
By facilitating communication with other Angie's List members, Hicks explains, the service helps consumers discuss the realities of home repair and improvement projects. "We've historically had a lot of seniors who were members of Angie's List," she says. Several years ago, it became clear that members with elderly parents in other cities were interested in using the service to help their folks. "It was very time-consuming and stressful for them," she recalls. "They ended up spending time [when visiting] their parents doing home maintenance repairs instead of spending what should have been quality time with their parents." To help with this problem, the company began offering discounted membership fees for a person wanting access to an additional market.
"Something else that they'll be able to access using Angie's List," Hicks says, "is that when you're reviewing reports, you can find out an idea of what a project cost someone." When asking vendors for consumer references, she recommends including someone who's in the middle of a job similar to yours, "so you can talk with them when they're right in the middle of the stress." Also, speak with a consumer who recently had a job completed so you can see whether the vendor takes care of all the details, including doing a good job of cleaning up the home after the task is finished. "The third person I'd talk to," Hicks says, "is someone who had the project done six months or a year ago. How did it hold up?"
Hicks says the weak economy continues to make this a buyer's market and that "now, more than ever, consumers are in the driver's seat in terms of negotiating a project." Still, she recommends that consumers think not only of cost but also of quality. "Find the best expertise for the job you're looking for."