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HOME IMPROVEMENT : Referral Services Help Take Guesswork Out of Hiring Contractors

March 05, 1994|PAT GERBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who's ever searched for a contractor or handyman to do a home-improvement job knows that finding the right person often takes longer than the task itself.

Does any of this sound familiar?

You talk to friends, who talk to other friends, until you find someone living next door to your neighbor's third cousin who actually knows how to lay a wood floor. But the guy's booked up for three months, then he's going fishing in Cabo San Lucas, so maybe by Thanksgiving . . .

You try cold-calling from the phone book, but every time you find an ad that looks legitimate, the number's been disconnected . . .

Finally, you reach a painter who doesn't sound confused when you start talking about faux finishes. Only you wish you had been sitting down when she quoted the price . . .

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 12, 1994 Orange County Edition Home Design Part N Page 3 Column 2 View Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Contractor referrals--An article about contractor referral services in last week's Home Design incorrectly stated that the oldest such service in the county has been operating for eight years. Among those in business longer is The End Result, which is operated by Bonnie Pauker and is one of the largest such services in the county.
The article gave an incorrect phone number for Newport Beach-based Home Improvement Referrals. The correct number is (714) 631-7200.

Now you know why your next-door neighbor hasn't bothered to do any landscaping for the past five years.

All this frustration has given rise to a new niche of businesses: home improvement matchmakers.

A handful of these services act as meeting broker between homeowners and contractors. Relatively new to the county--the oldest is going on its eighth year in business--the services have names such as Job Well Done or Home Improvement Referrals. One is operated as an adjunct service to a building materials retail chain.

The services basically work like this: They keep a list of workers whose references and job histories have been checked out (each does it a bit differently). They also check to make sure the worker has a contractor's license, when applicable, and carries insurance.

Usually, an appointment is made so the homeowner can check this person out for themselves, estimates are quoted, billing arrangements set and contracts signed.

Most of the services also have some kind of follow-up procedure to find out if the work was completed to the homeowner's satisfaction.

The matchmaking services typically get their money by charging the contractors a fee to be included in the listings or by getting a percentage of the bill from the contractor. All say customer satisfaction is important to the success of their business because they rely heavily on return business or referrals.

Here are some of the services operating in Orange County and what they offer:

Home Improvement Referrals

Diane Felton, who heads this Newport Beach outfit, says she has about 45 workers who pay her anywhere from $300 to $500, plus a small percentage of the homeowner's bill, to be included in her membership. They range from a guy who cleans driveways to structural engineers, architects and a contractor who builds custom homes.

Before including someone new in her roster, Felton says she interviews at least 15, sometimes 25, of their customers, figuring that that many references can't all be family and friends. "We are strict and selective," she says, and everyone has to be licensed, except for those who do simple jobs that don't require one.

Depending on the category of work and availability, Felton typically sends two people from her roster to bid on a job. She follows up the work with calls to the customer to make sure all went well. If she gets complaints about any of her contractors, she drops them.

Felton started the business after losing her teaching job to school budget cuts. She owned rental properties with her husband, and she was in charge of property improvements. But finding reliable help had always been a time-consuming task. After reading about an entrepreneur's contractor service, she decided to start one of her own.

Felton says she hears horror stories all the time from people who have had bad experiences with contractors. Some people were left hanging when a contractor exited in mid-repair and never showed up again, while others have complained about shoddy work.

Felton says that doesn't happen to her customers, because her livelihood depends on screening out those who are unlikely to perform as promised; she estimates that repeat calls from satisfied customers constitute 50% of her business.

Home Improvement Referrals , 2801 West Coast Highway, Suite 350, Newport Beach. (714) 348-8350.

Job Well Done

"We're really about quality, not being the cheapest," says Nadine Petropoulos, who started her Laguna Niguel home-based referral service almost six years ago. The company takes pride in not charging contractors a fee, but rather makes its money by getting a percentage of the final bill from the contractor. Petropoulos considers this an important distinction from services that require contractors to pay to join a roster. Her workers stand solely on merit, she says, not on their ability to buy a membership.

The service has a roster of 75 people who do everything from big remodeling jobs to painting to hardscapes to window washing to antique repair. One contractor, who has been in the area 20 years, builds multimillion-dollar homes. Although most of her work is with South County customers, Petropoulos has sent contractors on jobs as far away as Pomona.

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