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The Zagats of home improvement

Times Staff Writer

IN one terrible 10-day period recently, a leak damaged the walls and floors of Terry Snyder’s Westside home. He found someone to install new flooring, but his favorite painter wasn’t available to restore the walls. Then there was an electrical problem and his computer crashed. Who should he call?

Fortunately for Snyder, a teacher who is picky about who works on his home of 34 years, he found what he was looking for on www.angieslist.com, a website directory of home and garden services. The site lists 26,000 Southern California providers, from air-duct cleaners to wrought-iron fence installers, who have been recommended by clients, then evaluated by the company’s staff.

Angie’s List, which debuted in Los Angeles last fall and in San Diego a year earlier, is part of a growing number of directories that bring the Zagat approach to the home improvement industry. These directories blend the contact information of a telephone book with frank consumer reviews. Businesses can not nominate themselves, pay to be included or advertise.

The Franklin Report, which released the second edition of its printed Los Angeles guidebook in October, is another review service group that relies strictly on customer referrals and not deep-pocket advertisers. The company publishes other editions in New York, Connecticut and Chicago.

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These companies make money through subscriptions (Angie’s List is $5.95 a month) or selling their printed directories (Franklin Report’s 396-page paperback is $22.50). Vendors who have been recommended by clients, reviewed by Franklin Report researchers and included in the book can elect to pay a $375 production fee to have their portfolio posted on www.franklinreport.com.

Other home-service source books, especially those in which design showrooms and other businesses that work only with trade professionals pay to be included, have pretty pictures and contact information, but no critical reviews by clients. They also aren’t readily available. The Franklin Report is sold at major bookstore chains and on Amazon.com. Anyone with Internet access can go to www.angieslist.com.

Angie’s List staffers take consumer empowerment one step further: They will contact a business if there is a dispute and will try to resolve it. But most of the power of the list is in the hands of customers who need something as major as a home contractor or as minor as a locksmith to change a deadbolt.

Dissatisfied customers express their views by filing real-life experience reports. Was the work completed on time? Did the repair person clean up the mess? Do anything odd? A member reported a repairman who was caught sniffing shoes in her closet. The reports contain grade ratings (A to F) and user comments.

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An Angie’s List subscriber with a rodent problem can click onto the animal removal category and find an “A” grade given to Zenith Environmental Pest Control in Canoga Park along with a detail of the work done for one client (spraying for ants and mites and removing two pigeons from the eaves), the cost of the work ($330) and this no-spin appraisal: “The company has always been reliable, and whenever we had ants inside the house or out they were able to come pretty soon after we called. I did feel that the pigeon thing was a little expensive, but I had nothing to compare it to.”

In the Franklin Report, under the small chapter on swimming pool construction and maintenance, a client wrote that Paul Benedetti, owner of Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa in Morgan Hill, is an expert on fiber optic lighting and “someone I would recommend if money was not an issue.” The listing also includes number grades on quality, cost and value.

Monthly membership for Angie’s List, which can be canceled at any time, gives users unlimited access to the website service and call center. Subscribers also receive a printed 32-page monthly magazine on home trends and consumer pieces such as scams in home inspections and the moving industry.

When Snyder’s jobs were completed, he filed electronic reports, like a school report card, on the companies he found on Angie’s List. He graded them on overall experience, price and quality of work, responsiveness, punctuality and professionalism. He also sent in reports for work done by companies not listed. Now they are. Angie’s List receives 10,000 new reports a month.

“For me, this is a virtual community which keeps track of service and tradespeople in a society where you don’t know your neighbor and the carpenter who did great work for your brother-in-law doesn’t do work out of the Valley,” Snyder says.

The first help these directories offer is guiding homeowners on who to call. Angie’s List staffers at (866) 783-2973 listen to the problem and identify who should come to the rescue.

Snyder was referred to a computer professional to help with his crashed hard drive. Other problems are not that easy to direct.

“If the window is leaking, is it a window installation problem? Or could it be a gutter problem that’s making the water come through the window?” asks Angie’s List founder Angie Hicks, who earned an MBA from Harvard, then launched her Web-based directory in Ohio in 1995 when a boss lamented he couldn’t find resources to repair his house. The company now has directories in 27 regions.

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Hicks says another benefit to using Angie’s List or other consumer-reviewed directories is that if providers know their work is being evaluated, then posted where 250,000 members across the country can see it, they are more eager to please. Just as businesses can’t pay to be included, they can’t pay to be excluded. There is a place, however, for them to respond to customer complaints.

“Good companies like us because they get to compete based on the quality of their work and what consumers say about them, not their ad budgets,” Hicks says.

Cristina Dongo, who owns J.C. Upholstery with her husband, Jaime, thought about advertising in Architectural Digest to promote their framing, upholstery, slipcover and antique restoration work but says “an ad was $10,000.” Instead, she’s getting nonstop work from referrals from interior designers, Hollywood celebrity clients and a free listing in the Franklin Report.

Their workshop on Pico Boulevard on the border of Beverly Hills draws from the upscale neighborhood and as far away as Santa Barbara and San Diego.

Client Sally Aminoff is a busy real estate agent and “frustrated interior decorator” who brought two old club chairs to the Dongos’ workshop. “Jaime looked them over and explained to me that these chairs are valuable,” says Aminoff, who will wait six weeks for the chairs to be reupholstered in tomato-red cotton chintz with a chinoiserie print. She has friends in the design business but flips through directories such as the Franklin Report to find new sources.

The Franklin Report lists a range of services, including companies that design and build mansions and those that maintain small gardens.

Los Angeles architect Richard Landry is listed among other notables in the field, including Steven Ehrlich and Buzz Yudell.

Says Landry: “While most of our clients already know who we are before seeing the Franklin Report, it does serve to validate who we are and what we do. It is a way of reference checking. And I believe it is an honest book, where the ratings mean something. I am frequently called about subcontractors, which is probably how they arrive at the ratings.”

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