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Rebuilding Trust

 One builder singlehandedly tries to restore the public perception of contractors.

By Christianna McCausland

When Nora Moynihan wanted to renovate the basement of her Towson home last year, she didn't quite know where to start. "I don't know anything about owning a house," she explains. "[Hiring a contractor] is like taking your car to a mechanic." So she followed the normal rule of thumb, calling several contractors and interviewing them.

What she found was disappointing-contractors didn't show, showed up late, or didn't want to be troubled with filing for the correct building permits. So she went to her neighbor who was also doing some work on his house.

That's how she met George Waldhauser. Although she was ready to hire him on the spot, she recalls he said, "Don't take my word for it, go to my website and check it out." He sent her to buildingbaltimore.com, the site Waldhauser created as a haven for homeowners looking for skilled, professional contractors and suppliers who have proven to be honest and efficient. Now, says Moynihan, "I visit his website all the time."

According to Waldhauser, Moynihan's experience is not uncommon. "I think the industry could use a little touch-up paint," says Waldhauser, a Harford County resident who has been a contractor for more than 30 years. When personal affairs brought him back to Baltimore from California in 1990, Waldhauser got his business off the ground by passing out fliers for his services door to door. At one home, a woman took one look at the flier, said, "another contractor crook," and tore the flier up in his face. It was then that the idea to create a gathering spot for reputable contractors took shape. "I would like to be associated with a group of top-notch contractors, rather than a bunch of con artists," says Waldhauser.

Just about anyone who has taken on any sort of home repair has a nightmare story to share about the person who did the job. As Baltimore continues to undergo its urban Renaissance, the need for contractors continues to grow, but with the speed at which the city is changing, many people take shortcuts in the hiring process, not checking references or licenses - and regretting it later.

"It's incredible how much work is out there," says Waldhauser. "As a result of that, people buy these properties and they get into a bind when they need the work done in a timely fashion and they hrie somebody who talks a good game and they don't check credentials because they're just interested in getting the job done. I hear all the horror stories after the fact."

As someone who took his craft seriously, and knew others who did the same, Waldhauser started out with at talk show on WCBM, and gave lectures to community groups and in retirement communities. But with the blossoming of the Internet, he found the best forum to reach the masses. Thus began buildingbaltimore.com. "Basically, it's a resource for newcomers and people who are already established here to find a reliable source," he explains.

Although the website is still growing, visitors can search for contractors in almost every field, from tile guys to electricians to decorative painters. There are articles for homeowners about the pitfalls of working with unlicensed workers, reminders about seasonal home maintenance, and links to neighborhood groups and organizations such as Crime Watch and the Department of Sanitation. Waldhauser checks out every resource to make sure they are licensed and insured. Each person applying to be included on the site must provide references. Visitors to the site can lodge complaints against service providers, which Waldhauser then investigates. If the complaint is valid, the service provider will be removed.

Heather Macon, who lives in Reservoir Hill, learned about the site when she consulted Waldhauser about rehabilitating her home. "The website is very user-friendly," she states. "It gives good licensed contractor information as well as many more things you need to know when doing a rehab- licensing issues, home maintenance, before and after photos of previous rehabs."

While homeowners may appreciate that Waldhauser is doing their homework for them, he says he's no hero. It behooves him and his business to develop contracts with companies that are going to do good work for the long haul. Waldhauser solicits companies to apply to the website through various forms of advertising; those that meet his criteria to be listed pay an annual fee to be included.

Sam Smargissi of 203k Consultants, a building consultant and home inspector, met Waldhauser when he was inspecting a job. Smargissi says that he's been getting "swamped" with new business since he got on the site, averaging 13-15 calls a week from people who have found him through the website. He's now expanding his offices to keep up with demand. "It [the website] is very informative and well-designed," he says. "It's a quality site so I enjoy being associated with it." The site also gives many contractors something they don't have- unlike other services, contractors have been slow to move into the web-based world, and buildingbaltimore.com gives them an online presence.

Waldhauser hopes to grow the Baltimore site until it has 300-500 top-quality contractors and 40-50 of the best mortgage businesses. He has bought more than 50 domain names for similar sites in other cities and may expand in the future. As someone who has testified as an expert witness against faulty contractors, Waldhauser knows the industry's reputation and is working hard to polish it.

It's like being a used-car salesmen," says Waldhauser, chuckling. "You either take it on the chin and say, 'I'm going to be identified with a bunch of hoodlums,' or you become the best used-car salesmen you can and try to tell people how to avoid some of these scams."