Nothing makes a person's blood run cold quite like an unexpected, desperate need for a plumber.
Or a mechanic for that odd, whirring noise in the car engine. Or a roofer to patch the gaping hole in the attic. The misery of the damage is only compounded by the misery of finding and hiring someone to fix the problem.
A walk through the Yellow Pages can be precarious. Far too many choices. Asking friends for recommendations? Somewhat limiting and time-consuming. Might as well just throw darts at classified ads while blindfolded.
Angie Hicks Bowman knows your pain. Frustrated with finding good contractors and angered at getting lousy work in her Ohio hometown more than 10 years ago, Hicks Bowman launched Angie's List, an online, members-only consumer ratings system of local service providers that has spread to dozens of cities across the nation.
Last month, the privately held company expanded to Baltimore and Washington, to the great excitement of George Perkins.
"It's hard to find a good business, one that you can trust to do good work," said Perkins, a 58- year-old retired business executive in Finksburg who found out about the service from his brother in Boston.
"Just as you wouldn't buy a refrigerator or TV without consulting Consumer Reports for various product recommendations," he said, "you shouldn't hire a business without checking Angie's List."
The List's 250 different service categories offer reviews on everything from accounting to wrought iron businesses.
Need a carpet cleaning company? Dozens pop up with a corresponding letter grade, ranging from A to F.
Companies cannot pay to add themselves to the list, but can respond to a negative report to tell their side of a bad review, Hicks Bowman said.
Each review includes detailed information about the type of work done, the cost of the job and grades for responsiveness, quality, punctuality and professionalism. It also includes morsels such as how Holly from McComas Funeral Home in Abingdon "held my hand through the entire process and she even came to my house many times later to see if I needed anything," according to a post from a satisfied member.
A handy link also allows members to check for any complaints against the company with the Better Business Bureau Web site.
"We're not here to act as judge and jury," said Hicks Bowman, who was a college intern at a venture capital firm in Ohio when one of her bosses hired her to help him find reliable home contractors. Together, they started the list. "We're here to pass along as much information to the consumer as possible to help them make an informed decision."
To keep things fair, members can only review a given company once every six months, so they can't stack the deck in favor or against it. Also, members must confirm that they are not affiliated with the company in any way. Vigilant employees at the list headquarters in Indianapolis go through reviews to look for anomalies, commercial-like language and other red flags, Hicks Bowman said.
For Kelly Schweitzer, it was a mystery leak that almost sent her over the edge a couple years ago.
Informed by the water company that her brand new Owings Mills townhouse was gushing water somewhere, a panicked Schweitzer hired the first plumber she could find out of the phone book who agreed to show up that same night. A few hours, a new water heater, new sump pump and $1,500 later, the plumber declared the crisis over.
"The water company called me back sometime later and told me there was no leak," said Schweitzer, 36, who now lives in Butcher's Hill. "They said it was a clerical error. I called the plumbing company, but they wouldn't return my calls.
"I was so upset, but there was nothing I could do," she said. "It was an emergency, I thought 8,000 gallons of water was gushing out of my home and I didn't think I had time to find other estimates. I hired the first one. It was so hit or miss."
In less than a month's time, 1,976 members have signed up to post reviews on more than 3,500 service providers in the Baltimore region. Add Washington, and there are more than 7,000 providers listed.
For a limited time, new members from Baltimore and Washington can sign up for a free one-year membership. After that, it'll cost $5.95 a month. Membership fees and advertising help support the list, which can be found at angieslist.com.
Keep in mind that while thousands of businesses are listed in this area, many have only one review posted at this point. Hicks Bowman says that as more members sign up, the list will constantly update itself. About 10,000 reports come in a month from members nationwide.
So Schweitzer feels prepared this time. No angry aneurysms for her. Looking for a waterproofer for her basement, she called a few from the list. She's getting estimates from at least three and checking references.
"I will talk to other people as well," Schweitzer said. "Before I was going in blindly, now I feel like I've done some investigating. It will be OK. I feel better about it."
And peace of mind, dear consumers, helps everyone sleep better at night -- even if the roof could fall in at any second.