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Sources of leads
Sources of leads fall into three main categories, and are listed below in approximate order of preference.
1) Recommendations from:
other contractors or professionals
real estate agents
family and friends
neighbors and co-workers
hardware and building suppliers

2) Referrals from:
landlord associations
building departments/inspectors
municipal licensing offices
trade and professional associations
media mention

3) Listings and ads:
job site signs
community newspapers
bulletin boards
referral websites
home service clubs
Yellow Pages
home improvement shows
TV, radio, and newspaper
direct mail and flyers

Lining up prospects
Obviously, of the three types of leads, the most valuable are recommendations from someone you trust who has had personal experience with the contractor. And a strong recommendation from a professional who has used the contractor, or at least worked on the same projects, is the best assurance you can get. Don’t be shy about asking an architect or designer you are interviewing about good contractors she has worked with, and vice versa. If you are dealing directly with trades, a painter may be able to suggest a good electrician, and so on. Real estate agents often know tradespeople as well, particularly if they have some property management business.
Your next best source of good leads is another homeowner who has had a positive experience with a contractor. This doesn’t guarantee you will have similar success, but it vastly improves the odds. Tell everybody you know you are planning home improvements, and solicit their recommendations. But beware! You may also get tons of unsolicited advice about how, and how not, to proceed. You will need to sift through it carefully to find worthwhile nuggets, if any. The builder who built your cousin’s home in Minneapolis may have a franchise in your city too, but their track records could be quite different. Your neighbor’s son who worked in construction to put himself through college may not know as much as he thinks he does about basement waterproofing. But what your cabbie tells you– that you can trust, right?
Building supply stores can often give you names of a few general or specialty contractors that they feel operate in a competent and reliable way, based on their own business dealings with them. A plumbing supply house can recommend plumbers, electrical suppliers can suggest electricians, and so on.
You may have to search the Yellow Pages for the trade supply outlets– they seldom advertise or have big signs, as they deal mostly direct to tradespeople. They will be listed under the trade (electrical, plumbing, heating, etc.) then a sub-category like “Supplies - Retail” or something similar. Chances are they will not make any recommendation over the phone– just stop in for a visit and tell someone at the counter you need to find a good contractor, and ask if they might have any suggestions.
The second group of leads comprises referrals that come from third parties who either have not had direct personal experience with a contractor, or due to ethical or legal constraints cannot give a firm recommendation. These would be sources like a trade association which could not recommend one of its members above another. But in most cases you can be assured that they will not refer you to someone who is known to have problems, so their suggestions are “pre-screened” to some extent.
Many contractors belong to national or local home building or trade associations; architects and designers have their own professional associations. These associations will happily supply you with a list of members in your vicinity. You may have somewhat better odds with associations promoting green building, solar power or energy efficiency. Their memberships will be smaller, and even if the association office can’t specifically “recommend” someone, in my experience the contractors tend to be very ethical.
Contact your local building department (try to talk to an inspector) or the trades licensing office. Particularly in smaller towns, they may be willing to mention a few names of people they feel do good work.
If you are a landlord (or know someone who is), local landlord associations may keep a referral list of contractors that other members have found reliable.
If you see positive mention of a contractor in an article in the newspaper, or on a community television program, chances are good that the reporters learned of the contractor through a recommendation. But it is also possible that the contractor is simply very well-known– and thus expensive.
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