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Referrals for services from tuneups to piano tuning

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

When J.C. Lind hired a contractor to install a new air conditioning unit, the company let the job drag on three months.

Eventually Lind, 55, of Largo turned to another company to complete the job.

It is a common dilemma and one that Angie's List, a consumer referral service that has made a business of providing recommendations on local companies, tries to prevent.

More than 2,900 residents in Pinellas County filed complaints with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, formally the Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection, from September 2002 to October 2003. Most involved some kind of home improvement fraud, said Deborah Berry, the supervisor of dispute resolution.

"Because we live in a community with a lot of older homes and have a lot of elderly people seeking home improvement contractors, we are seeing a lot of problems," she said. "We tend to have a transient population which includes unlicensed contractors, and that also lends to the problem."

To avoid future problems, Lind turned to Angie's List, which collects customer-

satisfaction ratings on local service companies. She says using the list gives her peace of mind.

"I have found the people on the list to be polite, dependable, professional," she said. "They return your calls, they know what they are talking about, they are pleasant to work with. I have been very pleased."

Dave Hackett, president and majority owner of the Clearwater-based office of Angie's List, said finding reputable home improvement specialists is no easy task.

"Using the Yellow Pages to find a service company is a crapshoot," said Hackett, a former editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. "Our list provides consumers with companies that have a consistent record of good results."

This year the Clearwater company will mark its fifth year of operation. The company serves about 10,000 consumers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties.

Although his company views Hernando as a kind of "frontier" territory, Hackett said, "we are able to serve members in Hernando in the most commonly requested categories, such as roofers, plumbers, handymen, and electricians."

Hackett estimates that the list provides ratings on between 4,000 and 5,000 service businesses.

"Most of them are excellent, but we have some negatively rated companies, too," he said.

Not only does Angie's List furnish names of home improvement specialists, but just about every service category imaginable _ from calligraphers to clowns, martial arts instructors to auto mechanics and pet sitters to piano tuners.

When shopping for services, members contact Angie's List by phone, Internet or fax to get names and referrals. They can also walk in to the office at 600 Bypass Drive, Suite 216, in Clearwater.

After work is finished, members share feedback about their service experiences. They grade on overall experience, prices, quality of work, responsiveness, punctuality and professionalism. On the Angie's List Web site, members can view other members' comments. Companies have a chance to respond to negative comments.

Members pay $10 to join the list plus a $39 annual fee. Besides the referral service, they also receive a monthly magazine and complaint-resolution service.

Advertising in the magazine is limited to companies with positive ratings.

Companies cannot pay to be on the list or put their own names on the list.

Companies are added to the list when members put them there, Hackett said.

When a member joins they can put any company on the list as long as they don't own it, Hackett said. And members can provide referrals to other services.

So who is Angie, anyway?

In 1995, Angie Hicks, a 26-year-old candidate for an MBA at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, was tired of lousy service. She got together with friends and neighbors and started a list of good and bad service companies. The list grew as each of them hired companies and reported back to her.

Today, Angie's List serves 15 markets in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Missouri. The Tampa Bay area is the only market served in Florida.

Hackett said the list appeals to those who are busy, new in town, those with aging homes, and those "who appreciate the value of knowledge."

Hackett admits the list is not foolproof but is a starting point in the search for reputable companies.

"It's not a panacea," he said. "It's a tool."

Consumer tips

To avoid problems with service companies, Dave Hackett of Angie's List recommends that consumers:

+ Avoid companies that solicit over the phone or door to door.

+ Get an itemized, written estimate.

+ Ask to see proof of liability and workers' compensation insurance. (The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board advises consumers to insist service personnel provide a certificate of insurance. Homeowners could be liable for damages or injuries for the uninsured.)

+ Make sure the home improvement company or individual is licensed in their area of expertise.

+ Never pay the entire amount up front. "A 25 percent supply fee is fair. And you can pay in installments at certain points of completion along the way," Hackett said.

+ Withhold final payment until final inspection by officials or you are completely satisfied with the work. "It removes the incentive for them to come back and make any final changes if they have your check," Hackett said.

+ Always work with a contract. Get all agreements in writing.

+ Communicate well with the subcontractors.

+ Get a minimum of three bids for every job.

For information

Angie's List provides a list of consumer-recommended services. Call (727) 793-9484 or 1-877-312-6443 toll-free or visit the Web site: www.angieslisttampabay.com.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation provides information about applicants and licensed individuals for professions and businesses that it regulates. Visit the agency's Web site at www.myfloridalicense.com or call (850) 487-1395.

The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board advises consumers to ask for proof of general liability and workers' compensation insurance. Call (727) 536-4720 for more information or visit their Web site: www.pcclb.com.

Check on a business or file a complaint with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services at www.pinellascounty.org/consumer or by calling (727) 464-6200.

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