When the joys of home ownership have you down and you need some expert help, the most wonderful words a trusted neighbor can say are, “I have a guy.”
While I’m all for do-it-yourself projects and continue to expand my skills, I still have my limits. They include:
- Anything involving a blowtorch
- Plumbing projects with a good chance of forcing a hotel stay
- Electrical work that could kill me
- Using a chainsaw while balancing on a stump 20 feet in the air
Even the greatest DIY expert should have a Rolodex of good contractors. Your house knows your limits and will actively produce crises that exceed your abilities. It’s just what houses do.
However, being a handy DIY’er, or just being lucky, means your list of go-to contractors can have blanks or get stale.
A few years back I decided to take a more active approach. When I have a great experience, that contractor goes on a master list. If a neighbor (who’s not an idiot) has a guy, they’re on the list. I keep an eye out in the neighborhood and am always looking to fill any open slots or needed upgrades.
The trades on my list are:
- Plumber (and please make sure you know how to turn off your water main quickly)
- HVAC guy
- Garage door guy
- Tree guy
- Fence guy
- Sprinkler guy
- General handyman
My spreadsheet (you knew it’d be a spreadsheet, right?) is almost full. If it’s my guy, I record the contact information and also track dates and amounts spent. If it’s my neighbor’s guy, I include notes on when and what they used them for.
Tracking that history isn’t just for a love of data and spreadsheets (though that love does run deep). Good contractors live off of repeat and referral business, and it’s a wonderful conversation starter to say, “You did some great work for [me / my neighbor] back in [timeframe]…” That will get attention and open a schedule far faster than, “I, like, googled you.”
If you have a missing slot on your spreadsheet, how do you fill it?
- Ask your neighbors
You can even ask a local Facebook group (see – there is a use for Facebook after all). However, remember that some people are idiots, and many people have only two ratings for a contractor: 1) unbelievably awesome or 2) criminally incompetent. Anyone who gives you a nuanced review with actual details is a much better source.
- Keep your eyes open
When you see a contractor’s van at a neighbor’s house, remember to ask them about it later. This tends to provide more honest and informative reviews than soliciting referrals.
- Don’t google
Just my opinion, but I don’t need my plumber to be a master of SEO. Some of the worst contractors dominate the top of search and ad results, probably for good reason.
You can and should further vet any recommendation so you’ll be ready in a crisis. It also allows you to put more fields in your spreadsheet 🙂
- If the trade requires a license, make sure the contractor has one
Search [name of your state or whatever] [name of trade] license. If I google “Search Texas electrician license” the top result is the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. That was easy.
- Google them
(Remember – don’t google to find them, google to vet ones you’ve found) Yelp and HomeAdvisor reviews should pop up, along with maybe Google reviews. Don’t worry about the glowing ones – check out the nasty ones and see if the reviewer is sane or not.
- Search the Better Business Bureau
This is a great source of information for North Americans. If you non-North Americans know of similar orgs, please comment below.
- Hire them for a small job
This is one of the best ways to vet a contractor. If you’re preparing for the day when you need to trust someone with a major emergency and expense, how ‘bout testing them with a non-emergency at your leisure today? Hire them for a small job and see how they do. That experience will trump random internet reviews or even your neighbor’s history.
If you find a good contractor, don’t keep that information under a bushel. Reward their competence and honesty by spreading the word. (Selfishly, it’ll also increase the chance they stay in business.)
This Sounds Like a Lot of Work
Not really. And it’s a lot less work than scrambling when disaster strikes.
Setting up and populating a spreadsheet is indeed old-school, but you can do it over time. Just list all of the trades you’ll need and see how many blanks you have. A partial list, even if it’s mostly recommendations from your moron neighbor, is better than nothing. Seeing the blanks (and the moron’s input) and considering dark “what-if” scenarios will provide a nice incentive to complete and improve the list.
In this “my phone can do everything” world, there’s still value in developing an old-fashioned relationship with a contractor, and proactively building a list of them is an important first step. If you have a real emergency, it’ll be far better to quickly call a trusted name than taking whatever the internet wheel of fortune might provide.
Build your network of great contractors and take care of them with repeat and referral business. You’ll be better prepared for any need, and when your neighbor’s in a pinch, you can nod knowingly and say, “Yeah. I have a guy.”
Are there any key trades that I’ve missed? How do you find and vet your guys? Feel free to share contractor victories or defeats below.