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The third group of leads are those that come, directly or indirectly, through the initiative of the contractors themselves, so essentially constitute advertising. These include the so-called referral organizations such as home service “clubs,” or referral websites. The contractor joins up, and pays a fee for being included in a general listing which is passed on to enquirers. Alternatively, there may be a fee or a commission paid to the agency for any business they send his way.
Don’t assume those are always neutral sources. Some of these referral organizations, particularly those on the Internet, may be established by the contractors themselves, and may only appear as if they are an independent referral agency.
In most cases, however, the organization is at least an independent, third-party organization. But in my mind they are still open to a question of a conflict of interest, with the agency in effect being paid by the people they recommend. So look carefully at the way the organization is run. Check what criteria they use to screen applicants initially, how frequently and by what means their performance is monitored after acceptance, and what sort of guarantee the agency gives for the work performed by someone they recommend. Above all, do NOT accept a bid from a contractor who has not personally visited and inspected your site, and talked with you about your plans and expectations. An online estimate is not worth the electrons it’s written on.
Some building supply firms also arrange for installation of materials they sell– shingles, windows, hot tubs, etc.– by a stable of associated contractors. Since the building supply has an interest in keeping you as a customer, their management of the referral process is likely to be more conscientious. This won’t necessarily be the cheapest route, but at least if you need help to work out a problem with the contractor, you know who to talk to.
Though you may doubt it, very frequently bulletin boards in hardware stores, smaller building supply stores and so on are a good source of leads for tradespeople and handymen. Particularly, tradespeople who are employed by a company will sometimes take on small jobs after hours. Just don’t expect to find someone capable of a major job that way. Often you can check with the store staff if they know the individual, and start to qualify the lead right there.

Two of the most effective types of advertising, from the standpoint of the customer, are job site signs and truck lettering. If you see a sign for a plumber or painter sprout on the lawn of a house you drive by, note the name and phone number. Better yet, stop in some day and ask the owners if they were happy with the work. If so, this lead has just leapfrogged to the first category, that of a direct recommendation. Ask the people how they got the name of the contractor, too. If someone else recommended him to them, you now have two recommendations!

A site where a custom home is being built can yield the name of an excellent builder or general contractor, or the names of several good tradespeople. If you drop by the site of an active project, explain why you are there, and the workers will probably let you wander around a bit, as long as you stay out of harm’s way. Is the site reasonably clean and orderly, and is there an atmosphere of progress and cooperation among the workers? (More in the chapter on Selecting the Right Contractor for You)
Trucks require a little more savvy to decipher, but over the years have been a favorite source of leads for me. If I am in a building supply parking lot, or driving past a job site, and my eye is caught by a contractor’s truck, I will make a small detour and check it out. Is it reasonably clean, in good repair; are the contents orderly and properly contained? Not every tradesman whose truck looks like the aftermath of a hurricane does bad work. But the chances of good work are greatly improved when an individual takes care with their material and equipment as well.
I don’t mean by this that you should necessarily look for a brand, spanking new truck. In fact, an older truck which has been well cared for says more to me than a new one which hasn’t had time to show the effects of how it is used. Or worse still, is just leased by a brand new incompetent, who is leaving a trail of destruction behind him.
Generally, though, advertising gives you less indication of what to expect. Don’t hesitate to look through the Yellow Pages, but my recommendation would be to stick with the smaller ads. Good contractors get most of their business through referrals, so don’t need to buy half-page ads to find new customers. And you won’t have to pay the premium to support an excessive advertising budget, either. (One exception to this is firms that cater to emergency work, like plugged drains or wildlife removal. Good firms may have large ads, because much of their business comes from people who are grabbing the phone book in a panic. But in this case, check their prices right in your first call.)
Home shows may be a good place to compare products, maybe to locate some types of contractor, but don’t ever sign a contract at one. Take the time to check out the contractor properly, compare various estimates, and sign the contract at home when your head is clear– and where you are better protected by consumer legislation.
Other types of advertising, whether through the media, direct mail or flyers, are a pig in a poke. An ad that looks impressive or that you see everywhere says nothing about the reliability of a contractor, the quality of their work, or the reasonableness of their prices. If you use these sources as leads, don’t skip a single step in checking the company out. Of them all, in my opinion, the best leads come from small ads that appear in community newspapers. Often these people have a regular clientele in the area, and only run a small ad in each issue to remind people about them. Their references are apt to be homeowners nearby as well, which may help if you want actually to see the job they did. But don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of a community newspaper in another neighborhood, if it’s a good one.
At the other end of the scale, in my opinion any contractor’s advertising that ends up in your mailbox unsolicited should just be thrown away. And watch out. A salesperson who knocks at your door to say they just happen to be doing a job in your area, and could give you a good price “today,” should not be trusted.
See also the chapter on Scams, and the section on “Cash deals” in the chapter on Contracts

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