For all of those who have ever felt the frustration of trying to find a good electrician or the scorn of having paid a plumber $150 to fix a leaky pipe only to have it start dripping two hours after he left, some help has arrived.
The Community Referral Service, a non-profit Silver Spring firm, takes some of the confusion out of home repair and remodeling by linking consumers with area contractors who have been screened to provide quality work at reasonable prices. The service is free for Washington-area residents.
The range of home services covered by the firm includes more than 600 categories of work, from carpentry to landscaping to television repairs. David Ian Hollies, a Bethesda resident who started his own lawn-mowing service when he was nine years old, formed the referral service in 1980 as a way to help consumers sift through the confusion of home repairs.
"We all need these services and we've all had problems," Hollies said. "It just seemed like the good craftsmen were not good at marketing but the bozos were.
"We're just a place to turn to for answers to help clear up some of the mysteries of home projects," said Hollies, whose four staff members were working out of his basement until the firm moved to a Silver Spring office last August.
Over the past 5 1/2 years, CRS has made nearly 25,000 referrals. So far this year, referrals are running 20 percent ahead of last year, said Hollies, who added that he expects to make about 13,000 referrals this year. About 75 percent are made to Montgomery County residents, but Hollies said he is trying to spread the service throughout the metropolitan area.
CRS currently has enrolled in its program nearly 150 firms, which have to meet a series of approval steps. Each company is required to be licensed and insured, have a clean record at area consumer agencies such as the Better Business Bureau and a county or city office of consumer affairs, and submit the names of at least nine persons for whom they have done work who then are interviewed by CRS. After enrollment, CRS then monitors the firms' performance by checking with recent customers.
Since 1980, Hollies said he has dropped about six firms from his service for various performance problems and refused to accept six others into the program because interviews with their previous customers showed that their work was not acceptable.
"We basically work with conscientious firms to begin with," said Hollies, who added, "We do have specific clout with contractors in that they can be dropped off the list . . . and they don't want to lose that source." Companies pay CRS $2 to $16, depending on the job, each time they have been referred to a customer.
CRS also provides over-the-phone home-care advice and a mediation service to solve disagreements between consumers and CRS-referred contractors.
Russ Egeland, a Gaithersburg homeowner, said he has called CRS six to eight times over the last two years for various home services, including carpentry work, chimney cleaning, plumbing and piano tuning.
"I find that using CRS is much more preferable than going through the Yellow Pages," Egeland said. "They've saved me a lot of time in calling up vendors and taking my chances with them."
Herb Boback, a housing investigator with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, said that CRS complements the services provided by his agency.
"I think we're interested in preventing complaints, and the screening that they do helps to achieve that goal," he said.
Firms enrolled with the referral service also lauded the CRS program.
"It has worked beautifully for us," said Lynda Schweber, of Reinholz Plumbing in Silver Spring, which receives about five to seven referrals each week from CRS. She said the consumer group interviewed 23 of her customers before enrolling the company.
Schweber, who enrolled with CRS only six months after her jointly owned company opened in 1983, said Hollies' service is trusted by consumers, which especially helps small companies that can't afford advertising.
"Most people that call them take their word as God's word," Schweber said.