How do I hire a good tree trimmer, plumber, electrician, etc?
March 19, 2014 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Me and my partner both grew up in families that rented, and we both continued renting into our adulthood. Every time we've had a maintenance problem we've just done what our parents did and called the landlord or maintenance man. But now we own our own home, and though we're lucky that the previous owners maintained the place so well, it's going to start needing additional maintenance soon.

For example, there's a huge tree in the backyard whose branches are growing into some powerlines, high up enough that we can't take care of it ourselves. Also, the main drain in the basement backs up a little when we do laundry, so I guess we're going to need someone to snake it. The problem is that we have no idea how to go about finding people to do these things. In the past we just went with whoever the landlord or rental company hired, because that was the only real option, and we never had to worry about how much they charged, because the landlord took care of that too.

So here are my questions:

1) How can we tell if one of these maintenance professionals is competent before we hire them? I don't want my powerlines to get ripped out by an incompetent tree trimmer.

2) How can I tell if the price is reasonable?

3) What term would you use to refer to this sort of professional? Tree trimmers, plumbers, and electricians all seem similar to me, so is there a term that I can use to refer to all of them at once, and make questions like this less awkward to phrase?
posted by sam_harms to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Now, this will sound silly - but I had exactly this problem and where normally I'd rely on referrals from friends, this was for eleventh-level arborist services and I knew of no one. I bought an Angie's List subscription and called the best-sounding local people, got a couple of quotes and went with the better choice. I've used Angie's List several times since and gotten pretty good results.

Friend recommendations can be awesome or really hit-or-miss - I've gotten great work done cheaply, but I've also gotten low-grade work done very, very slowly. Recently, we compared an Angie's List guy and a friend of a friend; the friend's friend came in cheaper and we're going with him, but the Angie's List guy didn't seem to be gouging us or anything.

My sense is that with Angie's List, I may not always get the absolute best deal but I will generally be able to negotiate a good deal.

You should always get a couple of quotes for any significant work unless for some reason you have a go-to service provider. (We have a pretty reliable plumber at this point, for instance, and wouldn't bother with quotes unless we were doing something major.)
posted by Frowner at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Every real estate agent I know has a rolodex full of competent roofers, tree trimmers, general contractors, etc. So you might start with the real estate agent who helped you buy your house. And then drop their name when making the contact "I got your name from my real estate agent Fulano de Tal."

Also, ask your new neighbors. It's an excellent pretext for going on knocking on doors and introducing yourself.

In my area a lot of service providers are now reviewed on Yelp, so that would be worth looking at.

You can always get estimates from a bunch of different people before picking one to do the work, and that will help give you an idea of what is a reasonable price.
posted by ambrosia at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

We just bought last year and subscribed to Angie's List just so we could read honest reviews from other subscribers. It's a really good way to sort out the different services by cost and competency.
posted by Think_Long at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2014

If you're in Minneapolis you can also memail me for recommendations for both the tree work and the plumbing.
posted by Frowner at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2014

1) Asking co-workers and friends who they use and recommend is the best way. Angie's List is also worth it's weight in gold (or worth the 12 bucks a year anyhow).

re: the powerlines specifically, up here the power co will prune for you at no charge if they judge the tree to be "a danger" to the lines. No idea if that's true everywhere.

2) That's harder. Again, talking to friends and co-workers. Also just getting a ton of estimates will give you a good baseline for the average cost.

3) "The Trades" is often used to reference plumbers and electricians, but in general they're all very different and should be thought of as distinct professionals.
posted by anastasiav at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2014

Ask the neighbors or friends who are home owners. Really, that's the best way. One or two good recommendations are enough for me to go with someone. Mostly you just don't want to hear really bad stuff.

Ditto for price. Ask around. Get quotes from a couple different people. Be skeptical of anyone whose price seems way lower than the others. You might get lucky, or they might be cutting corners at best case or scamming you at the worst.

Make sure they are licensed for the work they'll be doing.

I think these guys could all fall under the term "contractor", though people tend to think of contractors more as construction guys. Vendor, maybe? But really if you're looking for an electrician or a landscaper you want to be specific and not use a generic term. A "handyman" might be able to do a little bit of everything though.

Some people use Angie's List but I've never really found it very useful.
posted by bondcliff at 11:48 AM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, once you have a good relationship with one kind of contractor, you can often ask that person for other recommendations. Your drywall dude will often know an electrician, for instance. (Or so I hear - I am my own dry wall dude and wish I could afford not to be.)
posted by Frowner at 11:50 AM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

When we moved, I created a book of all the folks we used, and found to be awesome, for this sort of thing, and left it for the new owner. So you might want to call the folks you bought the house from.

Our neighborhood also had a webpage/newsletter, and it listed folks who lived in the neighborhood who were also tradespeople. Our plumber came from there (and our realtor) and he was stellar.

Your realtor will also be glad to help. Ours was the "neighborhood guy" so he knew EVERYONE worth knowing in that regard. Also hooked us up with a great handyperson.

If you live in Atlanta, memail me and I'll send you a list of our folks. I love recommending them.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:55 AM on March 19, 2014

I find tradespeople using Homestars.
posted by orange swan at 11:57 AM on March 19, 2014

I've found friend and neighbor referrals to be hit or miss, depending on the neighbors. For me, my very house-proud next door neighbors are a good resource, as is the realtor who lives on the other side; but not the people across the street who haven't done any maintenance for years! Don't ask just any neighbor or friend for a referral - for an arborist, say, you want someone whose yard and trees look impeccably looked after. For pet grooming, someone whose dogs always look shiny and content.

Sample conversation with neighbor: "Hey, Karen, I'm Sam Harms and I just moved in next door. I noticed how terrific your yard looks and what nice trees you have. Who looks after them for you? When you need major tree maintenance, is there someone in particular you call?" If people are busy (and they usually are) get your neighbor's email and ask that way; busy people often like emails better than a lengthy in-person conversation, or else an email gives them a chance to look up their provider's contact information that they might not remember on the spot.

Thank your neighbor, and then when you call the service, say "I was referred to you by Karen Jones" or whoever. Some providers might give a discount or other perk to a customer who gets them new business.

I've used Angie's List and Yelp to find some really great tradespeople. I love my Angie's List membership. AL and Yelp can be hit or miss in another way: some areas have more providers and reviews than others. If you live in a very rural area or small town, AL or Yelp might not be as useful as if you lived in a more populated suburb or city.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:11 PM on March 19, 2014

One thing I have done is ask my employer who they use for maintenance for our office buildings. Their recommended plumber saved me $1000 on a major job (compared with quotes from other plumbers) and I'm pretty sure it's because I told them who I work for, a company that provides them with a lot of business from time to time.
posted by something something at 12:14 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I used to trust realtors and trade-specific contractors for recommendations, but often now they give names of "people I just know of" or folks in a referral co-operative -- in short, they aren't genuine, "this guy did good work for me" referrals. I do know a general contractor whose judgement I trust, but word of mouth is important, as are references (who I have finally learned to call, despite my old habit of shyness).
posted by wenestvedt at 12:15 PM on March 19, 2014

I use Angie's List. Sometimes I double check through Yelp. Neither are great but it's a start. Referrals are better of course, and real estate agents are indeed great sources for referral.
posted by Nelson at 1:17 PM on March 19, 2014

Portland (Oregon) General Electric trims trees around its power lines. Call your electric company and ask of they do trimming such as PGE does.
posted by Cranberry at 1:20 PM on March 19, 2014

We typically go with Angie's List too, and have generally had really good luck both with quality and price there. We also went through USAA's listings after a storm. They have vetted contractors who all seemed to be really knowledgable and helpful.
posted by goggie at 1:35 PM on March 19, 2014

If you don't know any of your neighbors in person or can't get a good recommendation, check and see if there is NextDoor in your neighborhood. I don't own a home but I've found it helpful for finding recommendations for dry cleaners, nail salons, etc. in my new neighborhood.
posted by radioamy at 2:07 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mom had terrible experiences with Angie's List in both roofing and plumbing [I was thousands of miles away and couldn't vett the contractors]. I was a remolder for more than a decade.

Ask for customer recommendations - especially from customers that have a lengthy relationship with the contractor. Hire older people with clean but not too shiny vehicles.
posted by vapidave at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hire women. I google terms like, "Woman carpenter, My City", or ask for recommendations for tradeswomen.

Basically, I want to support women in the trades, and although I have no illusions that women are better people than men, women do have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as men, and also have to really, really want to do what they're doing if they've made it in the trades, and also many women (super broad generalization) have more highly tuned socialization skills so often (again, broad generalization), communicate more clearly.
posted by latkes at 5:35 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have had very good luck with Yelp. I read ALL the reviews (including the hidden ones) and I think a bit about them. There are generally lots of fake reviews on Yelp but I am of the opinion that 60% or more are not fake. Also, when I read a review I think of it in the context of are the concerns expressed by the person in the review the same as mine. Finally, few businesses with good ratings on Yelp want BAD ratings on Yelp, and that is something you can hold over them to some degree.
I have probably used Yelp to select a vendor or service 10 times in the last year, and I have been very satisfied.
posted by jcworth at 7:13 PM on March 19, 2014

I'll have my partner look through these, then we'll decide what to do. We'll definitely call the electric company and find out what the local policy about trees and powerlines is. Thanks for all the good advice.
posted by sam_harms at 9:42 AM on March 20, 2014

For 3, the term you want is contractors. Although it can mean both broader and more specific thimgs than you asked about.

Instead of a tree trimmer, you might want an arborist. Your power lines might get ripped out even by someone competent, so you want them to be insured, licenced, and bonded in case that happens.
posted by yohko at 3:59 PM on March 22, 2014

BTW, we called the electric company. The guy who came out said that it was the cable lines that the branches were growing into, not the electric lines, so technically it wasn't their responsibility. But then he went ahead and just cut the limbs down anyway, so it all worked out.
posted by sam_harms at 7:51 AM on May 6, 2014

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