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The Expert

Contractor Connection

Marla Selko, 35, president, Urban Referrals, www.urbanreferrals.com

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page M03

START ME UP: In April 2002, the third tech company I'd worked for folded, after just a year and a half. That's when I knew it was time to get out of sales and start a business. I sent a survey to about 35 friends and business owners in my Dupont neighborhood, asking them what the District was missing, what they wanted and, most importantly, what they'd pay for. People said more parking garages, movie theaters, even a bowling alley. But there was also a call for service-based businesses -- errand running, concierge, those kinds of things. Then I was reading a magazine and stumbled upon a business plan for this home referral service in New York: They investigated contractors and recommended them to homeowners. It seemed like the perfect fit. And so, Urban Referrals was born.

FREE FOR YOU: Urban Referrals is a service for homeowners like me. When I started it, I wanted to remodel my condo, but I was too busy to do all the research necessary to find the right people. Now, we do contractor screenings, including insurance and license checks, as well as three references and a personal interview -- all the things you should do before hiring -- for everyone from architects to chandelier cleaners to closet organizers. It's free for you, and the contractors have to be invited to join the network; they can't buy their way in, so it's not just advertising for them. (When they get hired, they pay us a pre-negotiated rate based on job size.) Once a job starts, we follow up with both parties and receive feedback at the end of each project.

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OH CONTRACTOR, MY CONTRACTOR: For a lot of homeowners it's the same old nightmare: My contractor bailed on me, went out of business, left me high and dry. There are definitely good ones out there; you just have to find them. Sometimes I'll walk around the neighborhood, checking out the work that's being done. If I like what I see, I'll stop people at their trucks and introduce myself. A lot of trade associations also have networking events every month. They're not typical stuffy Washington functions -- the guys are more the beer-drinking type. Sometimes, though, it's just word of mouth. It's funny, because we go and meet the contractors before we invite them into the network. Often there's been a lot of back and forth on the phone, but you're not sure what they'll look like. You try to guess. It's almost like a blind date. I've gotten pretty good at it. As told to Kate Ghiloni

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