To Pick a Contractor, Play Detective

By John Kelly
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Yesterday I wrote about a libel lawsuit that a local contractor has filed against two of his customers, saying that they defamed him by posting negative comments on Angie's List (, a Web site of user-generated reviews of service providers.

The aggrieved contractor made some interesting points. If authorities haven't alleged any misdeeds, can Angie's List members act as a judge and jury? Is it fair for people to post without providing their names?

Of course, his points would carry more weight if he hadn't had a well-publicized run-in with disgruntled customers 17 years ago.

But what of Angie's List as a clearinghouse for consumer experiences? Eric Friedman, acting director of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection, said he understands where the Web site is coming from.

"They're trying to turn a big town into a small town, which is good," he said. "If we all lived in Mayberry RFD, you wouldn't have as many [consumer] protection problems as we do now."

Harvard University political science professor Robert Putnam calls it the "bowling alone" syndrome. Our social connections have become increasingly frayed. If we don't know our neighbors, how can we talk with them about electricians, plumbers or carpenters? It's much simpler to just fire up the old Web browser.

But Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers' Checkbook (, says there can be a problem with the kinds of reviews on Angie's List and other sites. They're anecdotal and often based on just a few customers' experiences.

Checkbook is more rigorous -- it sends questionnaires to its members and solicits detailed information on various categories of service providers. It will list a company in its magazine only if it has received at least 10 responses on it. (It does, however, let members spout off, Angie's-style, in the "Neighbor-to-Neighbor" area of its Web site.)

How then to pick a home improvement contractor? The consumer advocates I spoke with said people should get suggestions from as many sources as they can. Too many consumers pick a company just because it stuck a flier in their mailbox or it had a big ad in the phone book.

"We say those big yellow page directories are probably the worst source of finding referrals," Eric said. "The bigger the ad doesn't mean the best company."

So: Ask for referrals among friends and, yes, consult neighborhood message boards and Web resources such as Angie's List. But don't stop there.

"Obviously, just like they do with other aspects of their consumer lives, they have to practice some due diligence," said Bob Harris, manager of the District's Office of Consumer Protection.

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