From heart rehab to home rehab
So you want to remodel your bathroom, but you don't know a single, reputable contractor. OR, you want to repaint your house, but none of the painters are returning your calls. Or you've just moved in, your roof is leaking and you don't even have a telephone book.
Where do you start? Whom do you call?
If you're a smart consumer, you call Pete Thomas, president of The Home Improvement Network in Mundelein. He'll give you the names of several reliable contractors - all established, prescreened and eager for your business. And yes, he'll do it for free.
"What's the catch?" you ask. "Who is this guy?" There is no catch. And this guy is a sharp, 28 year old entrepreneur, who saw a need in the construction industry - and found a way to fill it.
Thomas' idea was to connect reputable contractors with qualified customers. To date, he has more than 115 contractors on his referral list, specializing in everything from interior remodeling, to room additions, to roofing, siding and even landscaping.
His territory spans the complete Chicagoland area, including Chicago and the northern, western, and southern suburbs. All of his contractors are carefully evaluated. Thomas verifies references and insists on proof of insurance. He or one of his company representatives interviews them personally.
Contractors must pledge two assurances: To service 10 homeowners a month, and to return all telephone calls. In return, his membership contractors pay a monthly fee based on the amount of referrals they receive from the service.
Member contractors do not raise their costs or fees because they use The Home Improvement Network.
"There is a great deal of distrust between consumers and contractors," says Thomas. "A lot of it is simply lack of communication." Thomas' staff talks with each of the homeowners, so they can understand the full scope of the project. Then they can match them up with the right contractors for that type of job.
"We can only refer contractors who have the capacity to take on new work. Construction is still largely a mom-and-pop industry, which means a contractor can only handle so many projects at once. When they're already busy, they tend to not return telephone calls."
The Home Improvement Network is rather unique in Chicagoland. While there are other contractor referral services, most of them are national and Internet-based. They can't necessarily evaluate contractors first-hand, or offer the level of personalized service that Thomas can.
Yet Pete Thomas never planned a career in construction. A graduate of Northern Illinois University, he specialized in cardiology rehabilitation while working part-time as a franchise manager for College Pro Painters, a franchise painting business that recruits students to run painting businesses and paint houses in the summer.
Thomas was good at it; so good that from 1993-1995, while still in school, he ran his own franchise. During his internship at Aurora's Mercy Hospital, he came to a blinding realization: He was more passionate about business than "cardio rehab".
Upon graduation, he became a general manager for College Pro Painters. By 1998, he was ready to strike out on his own. After listening to legions of frustrated homeowners, he had identified a niche to fill - matching consumers with quality contractors. The idea took off.
All the same, Thomas doesn't mind sharing some of his secrets. For those homeowners who want to find their own contractor, he offers these tips:
"It's like anything else," says Thomas. "You want someone you can communicate with and someone who is going to live up to his promises. Finding a good contractor doesn't have to be a negative experience. Our job is to take the headache out of it."