I have used Angie's List for years and I always found it to be a very helpful resource for finding and hiring good quality people for home contracting projects. Unfortunately, Angie's List costs around $50 - $60 per year, and during times when I'm not hiring any contractors (which is most of the time) it seems silly to be paying this kind of subscription fee.
Since then I've come across some newer sites that also let you research and hire home contractors but which don't charge you a subscription fee. Instead, most of these companies charge the contractor for the connection to you as a customer, if you do sign up with them. This seems to make more sense to me, from a business standpoint, but that's besides the point. What really matters is whether you can actually find quality contractors through any of these sites.
I've tried each of these sites, and overall I found that they each have a good roster of high quality contractors - in general I got good work done for a reasonable price. Each site is better for some people than others, so here's the quick summary of what I found:
CalFinder is my favorite alternative to Angie's List. CalFinder has thousands of licensed and bonded contractors in almost every city across the US. CalFinder's website is the best of its kind - its perfect if you're still researching your remodel project and need ideas and inspirations. You can click on their guides to kitchen remodels, bathroom remodels, window replacements, and home additions and browse through hundreds of project ideas and design concepts.
CalFinder then allows you to describe your project and get free estimates from several qualified contractors in their database. I got 6 responses to my basement remodel project. Each vendor has a detailed profile where you can see images of their past work, detailed qualifications, and customer reviews.
The bids I received were detailed and the rates were reasonable. I hired one CalFinder contractor for this basement project and the results were excellent. It was a large project and went smoothly (as smoothly as major remodeling projects can go, that is).
Estimate Magic is another good site for getting free estimates for qualified contractors. I found that it works well in the Dallas area, they seem to have a good number of qualified contractors - I received 4 bids for a window project within 24 hours of placing my bid. I've heard from friends that Estimate Magic works well in larger cities and surrounding areas, but the company is still building up its database of providers in smaller towns and regions.
I liked Estimate Magic's site for being very simple and no-nonsense. You simply enter in some basic project info and hit enter, and within a day you'll get detailed estimates. I found the contractors to be professional and courteous and all were licensed and had long-standing reputations and good references from prior customers. I hired one fellow for my window project and I must say I was impressed by his speed and efficiency - the new windows were installed in a day and look great now one year later.
Service Magic is similar to CalFinder and Estimate Magic, but has been around much longer, having been founded back in 1998. That's good as the company has built up a good reputation for providing quality contractor leads for over 10 years. Service Magic is also very large and has thousands of contractors in every location in every specialization, from windows to painting to plumbing to electrical repair.
You get a lot of bids back for your project requests on Service Magic. I was impressed that I receive 8 bids for a lighting job within one day. One small gripe I had was that a few of the contractors who submitted bids did not return my emails back, not sure if they got busy or what, but it would have been nice to get a contact back. However, I did find a very good contractor for my lighting job who I continue to recommend to friends. If you don't mind wading through more estimates and value having more choices to less, Service Magic is a good option.
Overall, I found that the free alternatives to Angie's List are more than adequate for the occasional remodeler who just needs to hire a contractor once in a while. The quality of contractors is good on any of these sites, since they all have staffs of people who verify the qualifications and work quality of their contractors - the chances are low that you'll get a bad apple, which is often the case with unmoderated sites like Craigslist. If you do, however, hire contractors frequently, or hire other types of service providers, Angie's List is still an invaluable resource, as the quality of the reviews is higher and the depth of provider background information is far greater. Think of Angie's List as the higher end solution, albeit more expensive, for those who frequently need to research and hire all types of service providers.
Sources: http://www.calfinder.com, http://angieslist.com, http://www.servicemagic.com, http://www.estimatemagic.com