Share story

Furnace dead? Plumbing sprung a leak somewhere?

Many homeowners know the dread of a repair they can’t fix, with nowhere to turn.

But help is as near as your mobile phone or computer. In the past year, several major players in the increasingly competitive online home-repair business have moved to strengthen their positions, beefing up their offerings and applications.

Angie’s List went public last fall, Home Depot acquired Silicon Valley startup Red Beacon in January, and ServiceMagic this month changed its name to HomeAdvisor and added other features.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

I gave all three a try recently after finally deciding to do something about some fogged-up dual-paned windows that have been bugging us for years. The job is a small one, but with complications because the panes are installed with some kind of superglue, requiring superhuman efforts to remove them. The last window specialist to try replacing some of these window panes fled with the job unfinished.

Each service boasts different strengths. Angie’s List, the oldest, has a huge stable of contractors and more than 1.5 million subscribers who can submit reviews; HomeAdvisor says it has the quickest response time and more than 80,000 home-repair specialists nationwide; and Red Beacon boasts the backing of the 800-pound gorilla in the home-repair space. Of the three, only Angie’s List requires a paid subscription.

Home Depot already has many contractors that can be reached through an 800 number for bigger jobs, said Kevin Hofmann, vice president for services at Home Depot. “But I never had an answer for the consumer that came into a Home Depot store (and) said, ‘I need a handyman for four hours,’ or ‘I have a small paint job.’ ” Having Red Beacon based in the innovation center of Silicon Valley was a plus, he said.

New entry

Founded in 2008 by three early Google employees, Red Beacon is being pilot-tested in four metro regions, including one in the San Francisco Bay Area, in which contractors, plumbers, carpenters and handymen who buy their materials at Home Depot can earn enough points to make the service free to them.

On, you fill out some forms describing your project and your general location. That is sent out to nearby contractors in the Red Beacon stable. They can either email or call with a bid, or what seems more likely, schedule an appointment to evaluate the work you want done.

I filled out the form and the bids came in. I picked one with 100 percent ratings who wasn’t far from where I live. He scheduled an appointment, came by and said he could do the job, perhaps by cleaning out our existing panes rather than replacing them.

Next, I tried HomeAdvisor. Based in Denver, HomeAdvisor has been in the online handyman space for 13 years and has a network of prescreened contractors — about 85,000 — and about 5 million unique visitors to its site each month.

HomeAdvisor experience

This month, the company’s name changed from ServiceMagic to HomeAdvisor “to better reflect a complete emphasis on the home.”

HomeAdvisor has an easily navigable website that takes you down a decision tree to the exact type of remodeling or repair service you’re looking for.

I clicked my way through to “window repair,” furnished my ZIP code and specified that I wanted someone to install new glass.

I got only one contractor, a window and door company in Sunnyvale, Calif., but four out of five reviews were positive, giving him a 4.47 out of a possible 5 stars.

“He came out the same day and was very quick,” reported Andy L of Sunnyvale.

That was what I wanted, so I clicked for a bid. There was no response after two days, so I phoned. It turned out my request landed in the window company’s spam box.

“I hate it when that happens,” the office manager said. She put her boss on the line. He was familiar with my windows’ brand, had dealt with similar problems in the past and was confident he could do the job, so we scheduled a visit to my home.

Subscription model

After renewing our subscription to Angie’s List, I learned that the subscription would renew automatically unless I canceled it before the end of the year.

That’s the kind of thing I never remember to do, and I imagined annual Angie’s List bills stretching far into the future. I didn’t want that, so I called the number provided for customer service and arranged to have it expire at the end of 12 months.

Angie’s List has been around since 1995 and hands-down offered the most contractors, which are rated by customers and dropped if they get consistently low ratings. Many of them offered coupon discounts for different types of windows.

But you have to do some work. After clicking on several who were 20 to 30 miles away, I spotted a nearby company. It’s probably one that I would have called anyway.

I left a message, and then contacted a second company that sported an Angie’s List 2011 Superior Service Award on its home page, but the company said it doesn’t work on my brand of windows. Now I’m contacting others on Angie’s List. There are plenty to choose from.

The company also operates a call center six days a week. “If your toilet is exploding or your basement is flooded, you may not want to go online,” said spokesman Cheryl Reed.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.