DIY is an option for most home improvement and repair projects. But most of us pull the plug on DIY electrical work, and for good reason. It’s a dangerous task—and not only because of the shock hazards you can create while doing the job. If you do it poorly, you can also create potential fire or health hazards. Unfortunately, you’ll face the same dangers if you hire the wrong contractor, and our ratings of local electricians indicate some do shockingly bad work for their customers.

Ratings from Customers

Although some outfits received abysmal ratings from lots of their customers, fortunately we’ve also found several great contractors. Our Ratings Tables report results from our surveys of consumers (Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals). Our ratings report the percentage of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on several questions: “overall quality,” “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” and “advice on service options and costs.” As you can see, there is major company-to-company variation in scores. Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.

Check Licensure and Insurance

Before authorizing any work, ask the contractor to provide proof that it carries both liability and workers’ compensation insurance. Insurance companies readily issue such certificates. And make sure the company is licensed. By choosing a licensed contractor, you can use the threat of license cancellation as one form of leverage in working to resolve a dispute.

Complaint Records

Our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts and rates.

How Much They Charge

To compare companies’ prices, our undercover shoppers called local companies and requested price quotes for four installation jobs; the ranges of prices quoted are shown on the table below. We used those prices to calculate a price comparison score for each company, shown on our Ratings Tables. The scores, which are adjusted so that the average for all companies equals $100, tell you how each company’s quotes, on average, compare to the average price for all companies quoting on the same jobs. Thus, a score of $110 means a company’s quotes average 10 percent above the all-company average. The price comparison scores can steer you to good candidates for reasonably priced installation work. But don’t rule out companies with relatively high price comparison scores. In many cases, companies with high prices on some jobs have low prices on others.

Here’s an important fact to keep in mind: You don’t have to pay more for good service. The companies listed on our Ratings Tables that receive our top rating for quality were actually more likely to charge low prices than the companies with lower ratings.

The key to getting a good price is to obtain several bids. For simple jobs, you’ll be able to get them by phone or email. For more complex jobs, an estimator will usually visit your home. Time invested getting at least two or three bids usually pays off, especially for large jobs. The second bid may be higher than the first, but as often as not it is lower.

Although it is always best to get a fixed-price bid, companies usually visit homes to provide free price quotes for only relatively large jobs; you can get bids by phone only when you know exactly what needs to be done. For many small installation jobs, and most repair jobs, you’ll have to pay on a time-and-materials basis.

To give you an idea which companies are likely to be least expensive for jobs done on a time-and-materials basis, our Ratings Tables indicate each company’s hourly labor rate and minimum charge for service calls (click on companies' names to see these details). Keep in mind that hourly labor rates don’t reflect differences in charges for parts and materials, and don’t account for the speed at which different companies work.

When comparing hourly labor rates and minimum charges, check several details—

  • Does the company impose a minimum charge for service calls? If so, how much? How much time does it cover? Is travel time charged against this minimum? While most companies charge all customers the same minimum service fee regardless of where they live, it’s a point worth checking.
  • Into what increments does the company divide its billing time (for example, quarter hours or half hours)?
  • How much does the company charge per time unit?
  • How does the company handle fractions of time units? (For example, does it round to the nearest half hour—either up or down—or always round up?)
  • How many electricians does the rate cover?
  • Does the company ever charge for a service call based on a flat rate rather than actual hours?

Our Undercover Shoppers Were Quoted
Big Price Differences by Electricians*

Description of job Low price Average price High price
Replace a ceiling light fixture with a customer-supplied new ceiling fan with light attachment $85 $261 $400
Replace six wall outlet receptacles and one light switch with new outlets and wall plates $125 $222 $350
Install a customer-supplied outdoor floodlight $85 $225 $350
Replace an outdoor outlet with a watertight GFCI outlet, installed inside a new weatherproof box $142 $193 $250

* Prices quoted were in response to inquiries from Checkbook’s undercover shoppers. The descriptions of jobs are summaries; companies were given additional, detailed specifications and instructions.

Dealing with Your Contractor

If possible, get a written price quote before work begins. The price should be a fixed price that covers all work, rather than an estimate based on material costs plus an hourly rate. A fixed price will protect you against a surprisingly high bill after the job is complete.

Make sure the proposal specifies exactly what you want done, including:

  • Makes and model numbers of all supplied fixtures.
  • Where new wiring will run.
  • Who cuts holes in the wall, patches the holes, and repaints the patches. If this type of work isn’t covered in the proposal, it won’t get done.
  • If permits are required, make sure that the company must secure them.
  • When work is to begin and how long it will take.
  • Negotiate for the best possible warranty. Seek at minimum one year.
  • For large jobs, try to withhold as much payment as possible until all work is completed. Companies that let you withhold a substantial portion of the price of an installation job until completion indicate that they are confident they can satisfy you. And you also get leverage to prod the company to do the job right if you are dissatisfied. Such a payment arrangement also cushions the blow if the company abandons your job.
  • If possible, pay by credit card. If you are dissatisfied, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.