Third Party Ratings Services: Worse Than Useless

I wanted to take a moment to talk about third party ratings services. You know, the kind that everybody tells you to check with when deciding on a contractor or vendor. Places like the Better Business Bureau, or Diamond Certified.

They're terrible. Not just useless, but worse than useless. They are actively harmful in your decision-making process.

How so, you may ask? Do they not keep track of issues with a contractor, and let you know if there are any problems? Well, not really. Those third parties make their money from the contractors they recommend: the contractor pays a fee and is "inspected" and then "certfied" and allegedly this means they meet some higher standard. But in fact, the certfier is beholden to the contractor and doesn't have much room for making anything happen when things go wrong.

Like our neighbors, Chez Neumansky. They've been having major issues with Winans Construction, who essentially pulled a Contractor A and walked off the job, delivering plans that were clearly inadequate (and I've seen the plans; I would have been embarrassed to turn them in as a draft of a project in my first year of architecture school, much less to a paying client; go look at Chez Neumansky and see if you think this is professional work), and since then have stonewalled Dan's attempts to resolve the problems. So I suggested he call the Diamond Certified people, since Winans is supposed to be Diamond Certified. And guess what? They're also useless. Can they mediate a resolution? No -- Winans is stonewalling them, too. Does Winans really care? No, because they can just drop the Diamond Certified thing and still be in business, pulling the same dirty trick with other customers.

On their web site, Diamond Certified offers you this guarantee:

If you have tried unsuccessfully to resolve a disagreement please contact us at info@diamondcertified.org or (800) 738-1138. Our mediator will work with you and the Diamond Certified company to attempt to reach an agreement that both parties can live with.

If the mediation fails to produce a mutually-agreeable solution due to failure of the Diamond Certified company to honor contractual obligations, uphold industry standards, or participate in good faith, we will refund your purchase price up to $1,000."

Awesome. So never, ever, ever use a Diamond Certified company for any project costing more than $1000, because that's the most you'd get out of them and chances are slim for getting even that. And since projects costing over $1000 would be the vast majority of projects we hire contractors to do here at Casa Decrepit, that means we're not hiring Diamond Certified companies ever again. (Honestly, go read the weasel-words on their web page about their "guarantee": they as good as say it is worth absolutely nothing and you're on your own, kids.)

Oh, yes, we've also stupidly relied on the Diamond Certfied logo to mean something. Let's go through our experience with a Diamond Certfied contractor, Rising Star of San Leandro. (Edited to add: this was in December 2004.) They were recommended to us by Contractor A, back when we trusted him. They were awful, just awful. (Not surprising from a friend of Contractor A; he consistently recommended really bad contractors to us.)

So let's start with the assurances and guarantees -- contractors always want you to think they are honest, so they offer all kinds of assurances that they will do good work -- or we'll take it all out, honest!

Rising Star's guarantee

The question here is: if they take out the $10,000 heating system we're buying, will they also replace all the wood they've cut through and thus damaged? How about plumbing they've rerouted? Can the work of removing the system possibly pass a code inspection done by the city? No? Then it's not much of a guarantee, is it?

Rising Star contract

But still, they want you to believe it means something. Contractors are forever offering us guarantees as if they had any real value. This one was not worth the paper it was printed on. What I want is a guarantee -- backed with real money -- that the contractor will do the work properly and fix any damage they cause. The ONLY way to get that guarantee is to make the contractor get a performance bond. That will cost you some money, but take it from the lady who just spent five years in a lawsuit, that money is well worth it.

So back to Rising Star. Where to start. The work was awful. They were supposed to install a heating system and replace our water heater, which was literally a bomb. (Ever seen the Mythbusters episode where they blow up a water heater? Our old water heater could have been used without modification for that episode because it had no safety features.)

This was the first thing we noticed when we went to inspect the work:

Wrong size pipe

Hmm. Maybe somebody didn't understand that exhaust pipes should actually fit together? Maybe they wanted to gas us out?

That same brainiac also did this:

No Dielectric connector

That's a connection with no dielectric separator between the two metals. That means that there will be massive corrosion at this spot, and that's a GAS line.

And again on the water line...

Yet again, no dielectric connector

Well, this one tells us that the first missing separator was not a fluke: these guys just didn't know they were required. (Aren't licensed plumbers supposed to just know this stuff?)

I don't even know what this was:

My only hope is that this was supposed to be temporary

That was Rising Star's incredibly wonky temporary plumbing -- that ran straight through the center of the excavation that was about to take place. That in theory they had coordinated with Contractor A.

They were also not too good with the electrical code:

Can anybody but us read the electrical code?

Can you tell which wire they ran?

But if you wanted real proof that these guys were not geniuses, it is the fact that while working in our basement, next to gas pipes that leaked (we'd had multiple plumbers come out to fix them and they still leaked like mad), they were smoking:

Smoking while dealing with a gas leak: smartZ

And like Contractor A, they seemed to think the job site was one big ashtray.

ANOTHER cigarette

This one is an apple core:

Our basement must look like a trash pit

Because customers LOVE it when you treat their basement like a trash pit.

Then there's the WTF file. Like how they found a piece of fake wood paneling somewhere (maybe we had a small piece of it stored in the basement?) and used it to fill in a hole they made in the floor above when they incorrectly cut the hole for a vent:

They reused a piece of fake wood paneling

Boy, did that bring back good memories for us.

And when the heater that they installed, which was supposed to be a 40-gallon heater, turned out to be a trifle smaller than specified:

We paid for a 40-gallon water heater

And this charming mess they made with our insulation:

That insulation was just in their way and HAD TO GO

Sheesh. I'm surprised that crew could get dressed in the morning, much less show up on the job site and totally destroy the client's home.

Speaking of destroying the client's home, check out what they did when trying to install the drip line for the furnace:

Nice carpentry work, guys

Gas furnaces produce a steady drip of water that is a by-product of burning the gas. You need to drain it somewhere, or it will cause a major moisture problem in your house. That drain has to go into a sanitary sewer -- your house drain -- or out the side of the house above grade where it won't get blocked up. Ours goes out the side of the house.

Clearly Rising Star decided to start by jamming through the sill plate -- as if that is a good idea -- and they got partway through before realizing that the ground outside was higher than the ground inside (soil tends to build up on the outside of structures; this is why you should go around your house regularly and regrade the soil away from the foundation).

Furnace evap pipe exiting the house

Then they bored through the foundation wall itself -- the old brick foundation.

An interesting definition of above grade

And this is their idea of exiting the house above grade. When in doubt, change the definition of grade to work for you.

Needless to say, we were deeply unhappy with that work. We complained to Contractor A that they had hashed up the job and we were very unhappy with their work. In the end, he "mediated" a solution.

Rising Star mediated agreement

Basically, Rising Star would fix all the non-code work they had done, install the proper water heater, remove their trash. They would temporarily install the water heater on a hanging platform for the purposes of the excavation, and according to the agreement we would have them come back at the end of the process and install the water heater permanently for the rest of the payment due to them.

We never had them back. In theory they could have sued us or put a lien on the house (too late now) but I think they didn't want to deal with clients who actually checked their work and complained about it.

So: companies like that can get Diamond Certified. Diamond Certified tells you nothing at all about how a company operates. All it tells you is that the company desperately -- desperately enough to pay for the service, which is not cheap -- wants you to trust them. The question you have to ask yourself is whether you want to trust somebody who is that desperate.

(As an object lesson in the reliability of accrediting services, I give you this page of BBB-accredited listings for Richmond, California.)

posted by ayse on 04/21/10

10 Comments

My husband is a pipefitter & I would agree...that's a horrible job. Yes, I think they are supposed to actually fit together. Hope it all works out.

Alexis, it worked out five years ago.

I check out companies with the BBB website. It's no guarantee, but having disputes listed, even "resolved" ones, is a red flag for me.

I twice went to the BBB with problems about companies. In one case they accomplished nothing (the guy, a local landscaper, was a plain crook), but in the other the company, Hydrosil, did, after a lot of arguing, issue a complete refund. That complaint is now listed as resolved, but I would never recommend them to anyone.

How do you feel about something like Angie's List? They seem to have real reviews.

UGH, Not again. This way reminds me of another episode years back of dumb asses working on Casa Decrepit!

Jessamyn, I don't really know much about Angie's list. But if contractors cannot pay to be featured or reviewed, then it could be useful.

These days we get ALL of our contractors by referral.

Vonda, this episode happened before the foundation job. We didn't post about it at the time because we were waiting until the foundation work was finished -- Rising Star was supposed to come back and finish the job after Contractor A finished his work -- and then all hell broke loose.

Trust me, nobody has been able to make a hash of a job at our house for five years.

Jessamyn, I work at a dot-com in the same space as Angie's List. They, like Yelp!, allow companies to pay them a yearly fee and exert editorial control over reviews that are posted on the site. These days, it's likely that whatever business "review" you're reading on Yelp! or Angie's List is one that the reviewees have found favorable enough to keep up on the site.

It's still true that one's best bet is to get a personal recommendation from a friend. The reverse is also true -- if you find somebody good, make sure to tell everyone you know.

For what it's worth, Yelp! now makes a point of stating that:

"Your trust is our top concern, so businesses can't pay to alter or remove their reviews."

Unfortunately, that's a lie. You know this if you run a small business that has been shaken down by Yelp. They need to do more than just have a note on their site; they need an open arbitration process for disputing reviews, one that the public can see into clearly to know what is happening. That means no reviews deleted from the site or altered for any reason that is not totally open. Otherwise they can say whatever they want and you have no way of knowing they're being honest.

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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