Finding Good Workers for Your House: My Rocky Road

“My fee for today is $250.”

“But Harry said it was going to be $110.”

“Oh no, Harry doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I did so much.”

This was an exchange I had with a handyman recently who came to work through our “punch list” of broken things in our new house.

Do you think I paid him that amount? Did I check his work before I paid him?

The porch railing he repaired was a complete mess. Our master bathroom faucet, perhaps the most pressing job, is still inoperable. Two days later the baby gate he installed had come off, and I ended up reinstalling it myself. And the scary part is: I did a better job.

I’m embarrassed to admit that yes, I did pay him his inflated fee. And no, I did not thoroughly check his work.

New Homeownership: Baptism by Fire

As you know, we’re new at this whole homeowner thing, and I’m really feeling my naiveté. This guy was sent by a contractor we trusted. Recommended by a real estate agent, he had spent almost a week at our house when we first moved in, repairing our gutters, replacing rotted eves, and reassembling IKEA furniture. We trusted the contractor to send a good handyman, even though the price seemed too good to be true ($110 for the whole day).

The contractor, who was apologetic and promised to reimburse us and repair the work, never showed up. So not only did we overpay, but we have to pay on top of it to redo the shoddy work.

In honor of Labor Day week, I want to talk about workers. I don’t think we’re alone in our struggle to find affordable yet honest workers. And I imagine others have our same limitations: little time to do the repairs ourselves, and little money to pay someone to do it.

So Who Do You Call?

When your washing machine or skylight is leaking, how do you know who to dial?

1.  People recommended by real estate agents, neighbors, friends

This was how we got our first contractor, who ended up shafting us. Recommended by an acquaintance who flips houses. Yes, I need to keep costs low, but I also plan on living in this house for the next few decades.

So while this plan is better than no plan, it’s not foolproof.

2.  Businesses who have been around for a long time

After getting dubious advice about heating and cooling our attic from a random contractor (recommended by our realtor), I’m thinking we need to up our standards.

Look in the yellow pages for companies that have been in business for a long time, my mom suggested. This is standard advice when looking for a reputable mover, and it makes good sense: someone who is in it for quick money is not going to last long.

3.  Angie’s List

After my strike-outs, I turned to my neighborhood listservs to find recommendations from neighbors. I interviewed a carpenter/plumber I found this way, but just because one person recommended him doesn’t mean he’s good.

My sister came to my rescue yesterday by buying me a year’s subscription to Angie’s List. Thanks to her $35 gift, I have access to lots and lots of user ratings and reviews for everything from painters to roofers to car repairmen. Plus, exclusive discounts give me hope that I might be able to find help that is both good and affordable.

I’d love to hear from you: how do you find good workers that charge a fair price?

And then later, let’s talk about tipping.

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  • Allison Knox January 20, 2012, 2:01 pm

    Hey Amy,

    You’re going to love this. There’s a great DC area plumbing company called… Frugal Rooter. (Here’s their website:

    My husband and I recently bought a new home and neither one of toilets worked. They flushed… they just never stopped flushing. So we called a couple of companies out. (We’re comparison shoppers… we’ve learned to do that the hard way.) Two gave us prices over the phone. Three (F.H. Furr, My Plumber and Frugal Rooter) came out to the house without charging anything.

    The three that came out were all very professional. They all showed up in uniforms, in trucks with graphics on the side and with the little booties on their feet to keep the carpet clean. They all had service plans they tried to sell us on, but the guy from F. H. Furr kept looking for other things to try and sell me, which I found a little annoying.

    The big difference was in the estimates. The estimates we got from F.H. Furr and My Plumber were almost identical. The one from Frugal Rooter was easily $300 less. Needless to say we went with Frugal Rooter and we’re perfectly happy with the work.

    We were even happier to learn that the same people also own a home improvement company. When the time comes to finish our basement, I know exactly who we’re going to call.


    • Amy January 31, 2012, 12:11 pm

      Hi Allison,

      Wow, you are right: I love their name! Thank you so much for sharing your tips and experience with me, Allison. It’s so hard when you move to a new place to know where to turn. So many choices, and where do you begin? We eventually want to finish our basement too, so I will check out their home improvement company too.

      p.s. Many people have told me that there is often a huge difference in quotes by different companies. Amazing that it seems to be true, and it proves how a little bit more time and hassle (setting up appts, etc.) can save us hundreds if not thousands.

      Thanks again for sharing, Allison,

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  • Jen September 7, 2011, 2:01 pm

    I hate this too! We’ve been SUPER lucky in this regard. My dad is handy so he has helped with most of the small and medium projects, but we’ve done a couple large projects and just got lucky that we found some great guys! I think personal recommendations are the best route–ask your facebook friends, ask your neighbors, ask co-workers. (You’d be surprised at who might have a recommendation! We are having a tree cut down next week by someone recommended by one of my mom’s co-workers.) Otherwise, what we did with the one flooring guy we got on Craigslist was ask for references. We were able to get the name and email of one former customer. Now, I can’t guarantee that the person wasn’t just a relative or something, but it did give us a bit of peace of mind. We took a big chance on that guy because he was so cheap, but he ended up being super professional and awesome. (He gave us a good rate because we had a small job his guys could do in one day, and he had a free date in the schedule he wanted to book up.)

    • Amy September 7, 2011, 9:46 pm

      Hi Jen,

      So cool that you have a handy dad. I have one too, but we live hundreds of miles away. But I like how Daisy suggested that we at least attempt to do some things ourselves.

      Good point about asking for references!

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Cara September 7, 2011, 12:15 pm

    I’ve had good and bad experiences with contractors I found on Angie’s List. Just make sure to write a review if you have a bad experience, that helps the whole community :)

    • Amy September 7, 2011, 9:44 pm

      Hi Cara,

      Thanks for your honest input. And I agree that giving feedback, instead of only receiving, is helpful to everyone.


  • Amy September 7, 2011, 9:25 am

    Hey Jen, Daisy and Sue —

    I appreciate so much your input. You’ve all contributed such great ideas! I love, love, love my readers! It’s amazing how much we can get accomplished when we put our heads together.

    Thanks again for the excellent suggestions — I hope others will look to the comments as the best part of the discussion!


  • Sue September 7, 2011, 7:47 am

    In the DC area, we almost always use Washington Consumers Checkbook. They print results of surveys of their subscribers regarding a variety of service providers, with ratings for both price and quality. Most libraries carry copies in their publications in their reference section. Subscribers are also given access to their online forums, where subscribers can post informal feedback on a variety of services not formally surveyed. We have been very satisfied to date.

  • Daisy September 6, 2011, 11:40 pm

    I’m sorry you have been let down, Amy. I’m lucky enough to have many handy people in my family, so I rarely need to find contractors.

    A neighbour of mine did some plumbing repairs herself after she found instructional videos on youtube. DIY is always my first choice. There is lots of help on the internet and I have found that the staff in hardware stores can provide great instructions too.

    DIY isn’t always practical, but it is worth checking out. Some jobs are much easier than they seem.

  • Jen @ Jen Spends September 6, 2011, 10:03 pm

    So sorry you are going through this. The job he did on that porch railing is shameful! Finding reputable contractors is one of my least favorite aspects of homeownership–it’s a challenge whether you’re familiar with construction or not. I usually take note of signs on the lawns of well-kept houses that are having work done–that’s how I found the contractor who did our roof, and was more or less satisfied with the work. Another possible option is to contact local architects (via and ask if they would be willing to recommend someone. They usually work with the same contractors repeatedly and have a good feel for their work quality and prices. I know it’s not practical when the job is an emergency, but getting quotes from two or three different companies will help ensure that you get the best price (and you can compare their ideas about how to best accomplish the job). I do not trust realtors to recommend other services, because I have learned that they scratch each other’s backs and have no vested interest in the home once the deal is closed. I take to to leave scathing reviews for bad contractors, warn other homeowners away and hopefully shame them into improving their work.