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"Have money, will have your kitchen remodeled to your satisfaction."  Ask a homeowner who has gone through a remodeling project, he'll tell you that isn't so.  In fact, assuming that money is no problem, finding the right contractor to do the job can be a lot of headaches.  

The road leading to a dream kitchen is often littered with tales of contractors taking the money but not finishing the job, or finishing it poorly.  In between, there are delays and mistakes.

Seeing a need to help frustrated homeowners, Pete Thomas of Vernon Hills has founded a contractor referral service.  Trained in cardiology rehabilitation for which he received a bachelor's degree from Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, he found helping people rehabilitate their properties is more to his liking and rewarding.

It all started when Thomas, while still in college, worked part time for College Pro Painters, which employs college students to do house painting in the summer.  From a painter, he became a franchise manager, a job that lasted three years during which he gained an intimate knowledge of the home improvement business - both from the contractor's side and that of the customer.  "I learned about the frustration homeowners go through in trying to find a reputable contractor," he said.  "They'll find a name in the phone book and make a call."  "Often, they don't get a call back" he added.  "Worse, they don't show up as promised to do an estimate."  "Home improvement contractors are mostly mom and pop operations," he said.  

After graduation from NIU, Thomas did work as a cardiac rehabilitator at at an Aurora hospital for a little over three years.  "From the experience I gained as a manager of College Pro Painters, I found my forte in running my own business rather than the field for which I went to college," he said.  

Thomas launched The Home Improvement Network in 1998 from his home.  As business rose, he rented an office at 281 Seymour Ave. in Mundelein.  He also set up a website: www.thehomeimprovement.com.  He has a staff of three, including himself.  In addition, he has hired some high school kids to blanket neighborhoods with fliers.  To make his referral service known, he also goes to home shows and attends county fairs by setting up a booth and talking to prospective customers.  "I go to as many as 20 shows a year," said Thomas whose wife Michelle is a forensic scientist with the Northern Illinois Crime Lab in Highland Park.  

His firm boasts a referral list of 115 contractors from all over the metropolitan Chicago area.  And it's expanding.  But not every Tom, Dick and Harry can get on this list.  Candidates are interviewed on a one-on-one basis, their backgrounds checked and performance records screened.  "The first thing we insist is that they must have insurance," said Thomas.  

The Home Improvement Network, he said, gets about 25 calls a day about projects as small as a handyman's chore like replacing a piece of rotten wood on siding, to remodeling a bathroom or a kitchen and building a new addition.  Last year, as many as 3,000 homeowners used his services.  For a homeowner looking for a contractor, Thomas sends three candidates for an estimate - free of charge - usually within two days after a call is received.  The homeowner can pick one out of the three, or reject them all.  "No one is obligated to pick out a contractor out of the three," he said.  "The fact contractors know we're sending three of them to do an estimate they tend to be more competitive, price-wise," he added.  Moreover, when there's a dispute over work performance, Thomas tries to act as an arbitrator or mediator to resolve it, which he stresses is not legally binding.  "I know people can call the Better Business Bureau or the Attorney General's Office.  But often they just take a report and do nothing," he said.  "We never had a problem that was unsolved," he added.

Thomas charges a participating contractor $30 per referral, regardless whether it leads to a contract signed by a homeowner.  A homeowner who uses his service pays him absolutely nothing, he stressed.  He said his unique business, for which there's no real competition except for a couple Internet firms, is not only profitable but picking up despite the economic slowdown.  Last year his business had $250,000 in revenue.  He expects it to go up by 25 percent this year.

"People always want to make home improvements.  When a roof leaks, it has to be fixed," he said.  "Until now, the economy has been good for a lot of people in the past 10 or more years.  They have more money to spend."  

And they need a referral for a good, reputable contractor to translate their dream for a beautiful new kitchen into a reality - dust and inconvenience included, of course.




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