(Money Magazine) -- Home improvement is one of the fastest-growing segments of e-commerce. But the consequences of a bad decision when it comes to finding a contractor or remodeling products online are far worse than buying the wrong paperback.
What if those rave reviews you read about a contractor are ringers posted by his daughter -- or if your supposedly in-stock sink order doesn't ship for two weeks, throwing off your entire work schedule?
Follow these tips to avoid glitches and get the most for your money.
To find a contractor: Sites that are driven by consumer ratings are your best bet. That's because you get to see what as many as hundreds of prior customers say about all the pros in your area.
Just watch for sites with anonymous postings and ads that appear in search results that look like positive ratings. In the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles metro areas, or a few counties in New York, Connecticut, and Florida, check out Franklin-Report.com, which compiles user comments into Zagat-like ratings.
Beyond those regions, a good alternative is Angieslist.com, which charges $5 a month, and uses the credit card info to prevent anyone from creating more than one login in order to post multiple revews.
To vet a contractor: The next step is to talk to former clients and visit current and completed job sites. Sadly, there are no e-ternatives to doing this in person.
But there is one key step you can do online: a background check. Get a report about a contractor's licensing, bonding, insurance, bankruptcy, civil judgments, criminal background, liens, and credit rating for $13 at contractorcheck.com, run by the credit bureau Experian.
To order supplies
Sites run by home-improvement chains (such as HomeDepot.com and Lowes.com), boutique manufacturers (BeadBoard.com, Horizon-Shutters.com), and specialty e-tailers (eFaucets.com, TileShop.com) offer bigger selections than local retailers do. But the main attraction is price: Discounts of 10% to 50% aren't uncommon.
Just keep in mind that if something goes wrong, those savings could turn into cost overruns. As with any online purchase, you run the risk of shipping damage or late deliveries, which can derail a project with multiple tradesmen working around one another's schedules.
So order online only if your contractor okays it and provides technical specs; you're far enough ahead of the installation date to make other arrangements if there's a problem; the site is an authorized dealer for the brands you're buying; and if possible, you've seen the product firsthand.
Otherwise, buy locally. It'll be easier to get matching items quickly if needed, and you'll avoid having to deal with a faraway call center if a problem arises.
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