A collaboration with The Boston Globe’s Help Desk:
Whom would you call if you came home to find a burst pipe gushing water into the basement? What if your circuits kept blowing every time you turned on the TV?
Every homeowner should be able to answer those questions. But for those who have neither had a household emergency nor a major home improvement project, there’s little incentive to strike up a relationship with a plumber, electrician, or contractor.
That’s a mistake. You’ll be a lot more confident about the work being done on your house if you take the time to find service providers long before you need them to show up at your house.
“Regardless of what stage of homeownership you’re in, you want to develop a Rolodex of reliable contractors that you can lean on,’’ said Eric Hagerman, home and appliances editor at Consumer Reports.
But vetting contractors — whether for a quick repair or a gut renovation — is difficult and time consuming. Despite the proliferation of online shopping sites such as Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor, the home improvement industry remains opaque to inexperienced homeowners.
No two homes are the same, which means the costs of materials and time in comparable projects could vary widely. And there are dozens of professionals working in any given area — some with slick websites and ads, and others whose marketing mostly consists of referrals by existing clients.
So what’s a homeowner to do? The Globe asked industry experts to weigh in on how to navigate the process.
If you’re already relying on space heaters by the time you call a heating professional, you’ve waited too long to pick up the phone. That doesn’t mean you won’t find a contractor that you’ll use again, but it’s going to be harder.
For one, if it’s a weekend or a holiday, you’ll probably have fewer options to compare, and some companies have emergency rates that are higher than what you’d usually pay.
“You’d like to be able to have people call you when it’s not an emergency if it’s the first time they’re calling you,’’ said Wayne Thomas, president of Deacon Plumbing & Heating in Stoughton.
That way, he said, customers can create an account, discuss potential problems before they become emergencies, and get estimates for any major work they might like to do. But Thomas, who also leads the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors of Massachusetts trade group, said such calls are rare: “It just doesn’t happen, unfortunately.’’
Hagerman has a similar recommendation. If you’re moving into a new home, for example, it’s a good idea to call a few pros to show them projects you might like to do in the future and find out whether they’re a good fit. Even if you don’t hire them right away, they’ll at least know who you are when you call.
Tech companies have spent millions trying to build online platforms that simplify the process of picking a contractor, but even the best services have struggled to improve on the peace of mind that comes from the recommendation of someone you trust.
Before you log on, ask your neighbors what work they’ve had done and what they thought of the people who did it. Good or bad, their accounts can help you narrow your focus.
“Word of mouth is still far and away the best way to find somebody that you’re going to be happy with,’’ Hagerman said. “Talking to somebody who has been in your shoes and has hired somebody and is happy with the results is big.’’
Maybe you don’t like your neighbors, or maybe they don’t know anybody good. Online services can be quite valuable to get an understanding of who is working in your area. And the reviews have some merit. But some pros caution against relying on them alone.
Thomas said he gets the sense that the feedback on some sites is not authentic; he’s been advised that contractors should try to balance out negative reviews by seeking out positive ones.
He does find social media helpful, especially in groups set up for residents of a given neighborhood. When someone logs in asking for a plumber, he said, they can get helpful responses.
Even if you don’t have anyone to help you with a referral, it’s good to speak with friends and family, even if they live far away. They may be able to tell you what to watch out for, what you might need, and pitfalls to avoid.
It can be hard to manage your own expectations about a job when you’re not familiar with what’s involved. That’s why it’s crucial to have in-depth conversations with the contractor you choose — especially if it’s a big job.
You should be able to understand what they plan to do, how they are calculating the cost, and what the variables are. Sometimes professionals can’t really predict the full scope of a job until they’ve seen, for example, what’s behind the wall you’re asking them to knock down.
Good contractors should be able to tell you how they arrived at their estimate and describe the factors that may lead to it costing more or less than they thought.
“I try to be open-minded about what I want to see get done and what might happen,’’ said Alex Arata, a Boston-area entrepreneur working on a product that connects homeowners to experts who can advise them on maintenance and repair. “If you have expectations that this thing might go in different directions based on the complexity of the job, then I think you’re in a good place.’’
Sometimes, contractors on big jobs are reluctant to give a hard estimate without some work on the front end.
Nick Falkoff, owner of Auburndale Builders in Newton, said his company does a lot of big renovation projects with many factors that can affect cost. He might give customers a ballpark idea to get the process started, but then he’ll ask for payment in exchange for a detailed preconstruction plan that includes price breakdowns. That is an upfront cost, but it avoids surprises.
“If you don’t hire us, at least you have the data in front of you and you can see how we got to those numbers. It’s not a black box,’’ he said.
There are basic questions you’ll always want to ask your contractors. What are their practices for cleaning up during and after the job? Will you need to be home during the work, or should you plan to clear out? Do they expect to encounter hazardous materials, and what will they do if that happens?
It is also a good idea to ask whether there will be any permits required for the work you are doing and to make sure they pull those before they begin the job.
You could also check their record with the Better Business Bureau.
But perhaps most important, you’ll want to know whether they are licensed and insured. If not, you could be on the hook for any injuries they suffer on the job. You should probably ask to see the certificate, Hagerman said, and they should be happy to show it to you.
“If somebody gets upset at that, then that’s a bad sign,’’ he said.
Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.