Contractor referral center keep tabs on good workmanship

After hearing from friends one too many stories of unfortunate experiences with roofers, plumbers, or electricians, Linda Ashbaugh decided to start her own referral center.

The Home Improvement and Contractor Referral Center (NICRC) was founded in March in Needham, Mass., and serves Greater Boston. It's a nonprofit organization that matches the needs of homeowners with the skills of particular contractors.

Here is the way it works: Owners call the center, which then sends them the name and phone number of one or more contractors in the appropriate field. The homeowner does not pay for this service. The contractor, however, pays the center a fee of 3 percent, but not more than $75, for the job.

Contractors find they can benefit from the extra exposure. Tom Lawlor, of Newton, Mass., specializes on Victorian homes. Through NICRC he recently received the job of adding a closed-in porch to a Victorian home. Since he was listed with the center, he says, his calls have doubled.

Ms. Ashbaugh points out that follow-up is an important part of the work. After a job is completed, homeowners fill out a work-satisfaction form, evaluating materials, workmanship, flexibility, and the time it took to complete the job. They also indicate whether or not they would recommend the contractor to a friend.

Before suggesting a contractor, the center first checks with the local Better Business Bureau to find out if there are any outstanding complaints. To remain on the recommended list, the contractor is required to maintain a high level of performance.

''This feedback is the most time-consuming part of our business,'' Ms. Ashbaugh comments. She adds that most homeowners have given positive feedback. For instance, Roger Caro, who needed work done on valuable antique doors, says he was very satisfied with the performance of the company.

The center is also preparing pamphlets for homeowners on such topics as licensing procedures, licensing differences among contractors, insurance liability when a contractor works in a home, and the difference between a journeyman plumber and a master plumber. Such details may or may not make a difference in work done in a home, but the information can be helpful when selecting a contractor.

The NICRC is considering setting up seminars for homeowners and contractors to help them understand each other.

Ms. Ashbaugh says demand for her referral service has grown to the point that she is now looking for a partner.

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