Most homeowners are challenged to find competent, trustworthy contractors who will stand behind their work. One way to do this is by checking references for your HVAC contractor.
After hearing from readers, we set out to understand what it takes to find a great contractor by talking with homeowners, contractors and attorneys. We invited 2,000 people to answer a nine-question survey about their experiences with heating contractors — and we analyzed their responses to figure out how the most satisfied homeowners had selected their contractors.
It turns out that the happiest homeowners were the ones who checked their contractor’s references before they hired them. However, three out of four homeowners don’t bother to check references.
Why some homeowners think checking references doesn’t matter
The biggest problem with checking references is that the contractor chooses which names to give you. Every contractor we interviewed told us the same thing — they only use their most satisfied customers as references.
“I’m not going to send you a name and a phone number of a job that didn’t work out well,” said Chris Stock, a Philadelphia builder whose company, The Stock Group, installs heating and cooling systems. “Why would I?”
Consumers recognize this bias: as one survey respondent told us: “Contractor references will always be satisfied customers. Contractors will not provide references to contact unsatisfied customers!”
Worse, one contractor, who asked not to be named, admitted that he used his family and friends as references when he first started his business until he had enough satisfied clients to call on.
So if there’s a built-in bias, why should you check references?
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The case for checking references for your HVAC contractor
“I can’t tell you how often people just hire somebody off the street,” said Andrea Goldman, an attorney at Rosen Law Office in Newton, Massachusetts, who focuses on construction, business, and employment law.
The case for checking references when hiring an HVAC technician is straightforward:
1. Shoddy contractors often have difficulty providing valid contact information for three happy clients. One homeowner interviewed for this article told us , “I needed to hire a roofer for my home. The first reference I called said, ‘I don’t believe in giving out references,’ and then hung up. I couldn’t reach the roofer’s other references. I hired the guy anyway, and then spent months trying to get him to finish the job correctly.”
2. Even happy clients may have had aspects of the job that they weren’t happy about. Talking to them allows you to ask detailed questions about the part of the project that concerns you the most: pricing, schedule, quality, etc.
3. It’s a good idea to ask contractors for a reference from a project that hit an unexpected snag. Everyone has those sorts of jobs — what you care about is how well the contractor handled the situation when it occurred. As Nick Bailey, the owner of Bailey Construction Services in Des Moines, Iowa, said, “This is a business of surprises. Just because I give you a reference doesn’t mean we didn’t have some bumps along the way.”
4. If you’re good at reading people, you can learn as much from the tone of someone’s answers as the content of the answers themselves.
Beyond theoretical reasons, our survey correlated checking references with higher levels of satisfaction. Ninety-four percent of the people who checked references declared themselves “very satisfied” with the outcome. The remaining 6% described themselves as “somewhat satisfied.”
In contrast, of people who did not check references, 63% described themselves as “very satisfied,” 29% as “somewhat satisfied,” 2% as “somewhat dissatisfied,” and 6% as “very dissatisfied.”
How common is it for homeowners to ask for references?
While slightly less than 25% of the respondents to our survey checked references, the contractors we talked to gave widely varying estimates.
Stock said only 2-3% of his clients ask for references. Bailey said about a third of his potential clients ask to speak to his references.
One explanation for the lack of reference requests is that most business comes from referrals.
Stock said most of his business comes through recommendations from real estate agents, friends, or neighbors, which provide a built-in reference. “People are coming to me already knowing they like something about me,” he said. Carl Kurtz, the owner of the Philadelphia-based company, Kurtz Mechanical Contracting, agrees. He said he doesn’t advertise his business, relying instead on referrals from other contractors, or from homeowners who were happy with his work.
Bailey does a lot of advertising, so many of his inquiries come from people who heard about him through his ads and not through a friend or family member. This may explain why a larger percentage of his potential clients asked for references.
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How to check references for your HVAC contractor
Let’s assume you have already received multiple bids from local heating and cooling contractors. You’ve already thrown out the bids that came from contractors who didn’t have the necessary licenses and insurance policies. This is the point at which you should call references.
1. Make a list of the aspects of the job that are the most important to you. Do you need the project done by a certain date? Ask the contractor if you can talk to past clients who had a tight deadline. Do you own an older house? Ask the contractor if you can speak to a client whose house is a similar age.
2. Begin by asking each contractor for references from projects that are similar to your own project. Make sure to ask each contractor for at least one project that had an unexpected problem, so that you can ask the reference how the contractor handled that problem.
3. Make a list of questions you want to ask, listing the most important at the top in case you only have time for a few. “Talk about specifics,” advised Goldman. And avoid asking questions that could result in “yes” or “no” answers.
4. Call three references for each contractor you’re serious about. Bailey said most of his clients call two or three of his references, and some even ask for a tour of houses he’s worked on in the past.
5. Once you have a contractor’s reference on the phone, your first question should confirm that the contractor actually did the work he or she claimed.
Here are some questions to consider asking when checking references for your HVAC contractor:
- How well did the contractor keep to the timeline you originally agreed on?
- Did any issues come up about the price of the project or the payment schedule?
- Did the contractor keep the work area neat?
- Do you have any concerns about how well the system worked after it was installed?
- If there were problems after the installation, did the contractor come out quickly to fix them?
- Were there any surprises that the contractor discovered after the project began? How were those handled?
- How would you compare this contractor to contractors you’ve hired for other jobs?
- Would you hire this contractor to do a similar project again?
Is there anything you can’t ask a reference?
We wondered whether there’s anything a reference shouldn’t say. For example, if a contractor doesn’t get hired because of a negative comment made by one of their references, can the contractor hold the reference responsible for the lost work?
Goldman said this is not a major concern. “It’s not against the law to say somebody’s bad,” she said. “It’s just you don’t want to trigger something where they’re going to make some claim against you.” She pointed out that it’s unlikely the contractor will find out why they didn’t get the job, so the risk to the reference is fairly small.
Even though it’s not illegal for a reference to say negative things about a contractor, some people are reluctant to say something unflattering about another person. Try asking whether they’d hire the contractor for a similar job in the future, or ask them to compare this contractor to others they have hired.
What about using online review sites?
Online review sites make it easier for potential clients to get the skinny on contractors without making a single phone call.
But it’s important to take online reviews with a grain of salt. Sometimes a contractor’s competitors leave bad reviews in an attempt to drive customers to their own businesses.
In addition, some review sites give more prominence to the reviews written by regular users of the site. One contractor told us a single bad review of his business eclipsed a dozen good reviews because the person who wrote the bad review was a regular contributor.
“Everybody has a bad review of some kind,” Bailey agreed.
A single bad online review shouldn’t sour you on a contractor completely. But a series of bad reviews that cite the same problems should make you concerned. If you’re not sure whether an online review is credible or not, ask the contractor about it. And, in such cases, it’s all the more important to call references.
The bottom line on references
It takes a lot of time to thoroughly vet a contractor before you hire them. But it’s time well spent. You’ll have years to enjoy a well-installed HVAC system.
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