The 15-Minute Expert Consumer

SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - Need facts fast? Visit these top Web sites for choosing doctors, contractors, appliances, and more.

Writing for PC World hasn't made me a household name or the target of autograph hounds. But it does help me keep in touch with friends and family--at least when they're shopping for computers. Even distant cousins call for technology tips and advice on the best PC deals. And I'm sure that lots of PC World readers get similar calls from folks they know.

No doubt about it, being an expert is great. But how do we deal with those areas of life we're not so well informed about? No problem--just turn to the Web. Hit the right sites, and you can arm yourself with the knowledge you need to find the right doctor, hire a good contractor, purchase an appliance, invest in a stock, or even ace a job interview. Becoming an expert won't cramp your schedule, either. Here are some essential sites that will make you an insufferable know-it-all in short order.

What's Up, Docs?

I used to leave the enormously important decision of choosing a doctor to random factors like location--geographic or in the Yellow Pages. Now, thanks to the Web, I can make an informed choice. Of course, there's still no substitute for a thorough interview with a prospective physician, but health sites are great places to find doctors who are worth considering.

WebMD Inc., for instance, puts a database of half a million doctors at your fingertips. Tell the site your zip code and how far you're willing to drive; and then specify desired specialties, a preference (if you have one) for a male or female practitioner, and how many years of experience your M.D. should have.

A list of doctors will pop up. Click on a name, and you'll get facts on affiliation, education, and residency.

At, you'll find a lot of stuff that's also available at WebMD, but you can limit your search to physicians who are board-certified and have no sanctions against them. And while you're at the site, you can check to see how your local hospitals stack up and how good your health plan is.

If you run into trouble getting your insurance company to pay for a procedure because it says the price is excessive, arm yourself with statistical support by going to and researching the cost of various medical procedures and how hospitals calculate charges. also carries evaluations of doctors, dentists, and hospitals, but I found its ratings in these areas rather scanty.

Stay In Charge Of Renovations

Remodeling is a great way to increase the value of your house. It's also an enormous task that involves surrendering your home (and a good deal of your money) to a contractor you may barely know. So it's important to do your homework. The best way to find a contractor is to get a referral from someone you know--with a finished project you can look at. But if that fails, or if you just want to get competitive bids, take your search online at,,, or Keep in mind, however, that you'll generally have to surrender information such as your address and budget, and you may not find anyone. (None of these sites could find me a contractor in my area initially, although Handymanonline did eventually put me in touch with a roofer.)Even if you don't find your contractor online, you can get up to speed on household renovations at The site provides an overview of the entire search, bid, contract, and construction process, and supplies invaluable tools for calculating what your remodeling job will cost. Those tools are a great way to double-check your contractor's initial quote and assess any additional charges that crop up. For instance, try changing materials (say, from granite to laminate) to see if your contractor is hitting you too hard for some last-minute changes to your renovation job. (Price gouging for project changes is a persistent problem in the contracting world.)Armed And Ready To ShopIf you're buying fancy kitchen flooring--or if you just want a new big-screen TV--the Web can quickly prepare you for a battle with scary salespeople. First, point your browser to Consumer Reports Online at The venerable magazine's Internet home isn't free: A one-month subscription to its database of product reviews costs $3.95, but it's well worth it. Don't forget to cancel the subscription at the end of the month unless you want the service (and billings) to continue indefinitely.

Consumer Reports Online is tops in my book, but a few other product comparison sites also deserve a visit, including Productopia (, where in-house experts judge an array of products on features and style. lets you see what other consumers think of items ranging from cars to cameras. Another possibility is's remake of, one of the Internet's oldest product comparison-shopping sites.

At you can click on Home Appliances to study product specifications, track down models that suit your requirements, and do side-by-side comparisons (some complete with product reviews).

Is the item you're shopping for a new or used car? If so, begin by checking Consumer Reports Online's reliability ratings for the model and year you have in mind, so you won't have to endure that horrifying moment when a sexy hunk of steel you've just purchased falls apart the minute you drive it off the lot. I also like the honest reviews and no-nonsense shopping advice at and the budgeting tools at CarPoint ( You can check out average prices for used cars at both these sites, too.

Taking Stock

Nowadays it's hard to go to a party without getting into a conversation about the stock market. Instead of shrugging and mumbling into your drink, hold forth with authority. There are a zillion and one sites for investors, but for my money (and time) only three are must-visits. For help narrowing the dauntingly expansive investment universe down to stocks suitable for your particular portfolio--plus online tools to help manage that portfolio from day to day--go to To learn about a particular company or a specific industry, pay a call to And for stock market analyses updated by investment experts throughout the day, visit

Both and have free sections that supply more than enough information for most prospective investors. If you find that day trading is your calling, springing for paid subscriptions to these two sites will give you access to in-depth information, such as detailed company financials and up-to-the-minute downgrades and upgrades.

Sneaky Job Searching

Have you heeded ads for job sites such as and posted your resume online? When someone from a company you've never heard of calls to schedule an interview, you can still wow the caller. Pretend you're in a meeting and put the caller on hold. Then head to This vast site identifies what the company does, when it started, and who it competes with. Back on the phone, drop a morsel or two to show your knowledge. Interview this afternoon? No problem, you say.

Back at, read Q&As with company execs so you know what names to bandy about at the interview. Got the job? Of course. But before your first day, take a look at's Purchase Circles feature. Here you'll find what shoppers at specific companies are listening to, reading, and watching--useful info for small talk at your new gig. If, for example, you've taken a job at Qualcomm, mention that you just bought the new Nine Inch Nails CD. You'll fit right in.

Christina Wood is a PC World contributing editor.

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