Millions of consumers have made Angie’s List their go-to site for reliable home repair work at reasonable prices. The Indianapolis-based website carries a reputation for weeding out unscrupulous or unqualified operators, and its curated ratings are considered a gold standard for a veritable army of loyal users.
Likewise, home repair companies fight – and pay – to get their names front and center on Angie’s List search results. Chicago plumber Jack Blanton did that too. Until he found out that his prices were being undercut on the site by some companies that weren’t even licensed to do business in the city.
“I found out there were handymen, there were electricians advertising hot water heaters,” Blanton said. “There were everyone and their mother offering plumbing services at rates there is no way a legitimate plumbing contractor could compete with.”
Oddly enough, Blanton was an Angie’s List disciple. It had been good for him, bringing in a ton of new leads and helping his North Side plumbing business grow.
“We probably do in a neighborhood on average of about 50 or 60 calls a week,” he said. “There was a time they were probably 35 of those 60 calls.”
In fact, Blanton felt so strongly about Angie’s List that he appeared in a promotional video for the company. But all of that changed, he said, when he got an angry phone call from a customer demanding her money back from what had been an otherwise-stellar job. The woman complained that after she paid Blanton $207, she had gone on Angie’s List and found another contractor which claimed it could have done the same job for just $60.
“I immediately thought, how could you give two hours of plumbing work for 60 bucks?” he said.
Blanton says he went on the website himself and started shopping deals for Chicago plumbers – and what he found surprised him. Just like his angry customer, he saw numerous contractors offering what seemed to be too-good-to-be-true prices.
“This past week, I did the exact same thing,” he said. “There were 55 offers from 55 contractors, and only 12 of them were legitimately licensed to do plumbing in the City of Chicago.”
Blanton says he immediately contacted Angie’s List to let them know about the unlicensed contractors, but the offers have not been taken down.
After Blanton told us of his findings, NBC 5 Investigates took a look at the Angie’s List plumbing offers for Chicago and found similar results. Out of 56 local companies that advertise plumbing deals on Angie’s List, we could not find proper licenses for 24. And seven of those unlicensed companies are “Angie’s List Certified,” which means they meet higher “standards of certification.” Those include an annual criminal background check, good business standing, an overall member rating of A or B and a promise that they have the proper licenses to do listed work.
“You are supposed to be licensed to do any plumbing work in the City of Chicago,” said Judith Frydland, the city Commissioner of Buildings. “I don’t know how you put someone up there as a professional who knows what they are doing when that person isn’t licensed.”
Frydland said she found our results “disturbing” and her department immediately reached out to Angie’s List.
“Anybody who’s doing plumbing work in the City of Chicago should be licensed by the city and the state,” she said.
But like Blanton, we found repeated examples where that wasn’t happening.
Take Bate Remodeling, a North Side Chicago business that has advertised special offers for plumbing services on Angie’s List, including kitchen and bathroom faucet installations and garbage disposal work. We could find no plumbing license in the name of Bate Remodeling, or its owner, in Chicago, Cook County, or the State of Illinois. Yet Bate is listed as “Angie’s List Certified,” which means they “attest to having proper licenses to perform listed work.”
A-1 Patrick’s Plumbing of Chicago Lawn confirmed it also does work in Chicago, but when we checked the State of Illinois, Cook County and Chicago, we found no license for that company either – despite its status as “Angie’s List Certified.”
In fact, A-1 Patrick even received Angie’s “Super Service” award that goes to providers who have “achieved and maintained a superior service rating on Angie’s List.”
After we showed our findings to the city – which in turn asked Angie’s List for an explanation – the company told us in a statement that it is now working with the Building Department and is “currently re-auditing all of the ‘Certified Pros’ in the Chicago market in plumbing and related categories.” Indeed, both A-1 and Bate confirmed to NBC 5 Investigates that they have heard from Angie’s List, and are now updating their listings to show only the services they are actually licensed to do.
Frydland said her department emphasized to Angie’s List the importance of only listing licensed contractors.
“I think I would say that you get what you pay for,” Frydland said. “I mean, you could spend $40 now and they could do a lot of damage that could cost you a thousand dollars later.”
In fact, the City of Chicago just recently passed a new ordinance which gives the Department of Buildings new teeth to go after bad contractors – including unlicensed contractors -- and allows the city to suspend a company’s permitting privileges, or suspend or even revoke a license, if it violates the city building code or licensing regulations.
For its part, Angie’s List has its own research department which, a spokeswoman acknowledged, can check up on contractor licenses. But she also said that the company makes it clear in its listings that it relies on the word of each business “to confirm they are properly licensed for the work they advertise in the areas they serve.” And the company adds that NBC 5 Investigates’ findings are “an example of our process working as it should. When someone questions a company’s status – whether that company is an advertiser or not – we conduct an audit and take appropriate action on what we find.”
While that may be true, the whole episode left Blanton wanting no more of his Angie’s List experience. After advertising heavily with the site, at one time averaging $7500 per month, he said he has stopped paying for advertising with Angie’s List completely. He is currently in dispute with the company concerning money he paid for advertising, after he raised his questions about the unlicensed advertisers. Angie’s List declined to comment on its dealings with Blanton.
But online, we found that Blanton’s company has been basically blacklisted on the website, which attached a notice on the top of his company’s page saying that J. Blanton Plumbing “…does not meet, or has not yet met, some or any of Angie’s List criteria,” and therefore the plumber “is being withheld from category and keyword searches.”
“I used to fit there very well,” Blanton said. “And for whatever reasons, we just don’t fit there anymore. It’s not for us.”