We are similar in our goals, as I am, coincidentally, in IT, live in TX, and have been seriously looking for a small business for 5+ months. Although I am not quite there, that is, have not yet found the right business, I feel I've learned a great deal in the process.
In my research on business valuation services, I've found many flavors. Some will simply do a comparative based on similar business (e.g. restaurants) in the same geographical region. Some will review financials and value as one would an annuity. Some combine these methods with an industry/regional expertise and, in theory, get closer to the "true" value. In your case, it sounds like finding a firm that can demonstrate industry expertise relevant to your potential acquisition is the best direction.
While I see the value in such a service, I strongly recommend that you hold off and do your own review of financials and operations before investing in a valuation service. Of the several businesses I've had a chance to dive into, including many that I was absolutely convinced was "the one," your investigation into operations and careful review of financials will uncover many things not in even the most detailed prospectus. Some examples of red flags I've encountered include:
- Owners who include the supposed "growth opportunities" in their view of a business' worth. There is no reason whatsoever to pay for the future. You pay for the present performance and a history of reliable business. You are already going to pay for the future in the form of your time, money, planning, etc. If future value was indeed "simple," the current owners would have likely tried that path.
- Underrepresenting what it costs to run the business. Example: a seller says that their business generates $X in cash flow, but declines to mention that his family works in the business and that they are not paid a salary. You have to replace those people, a cost that eats into owners benefit.
- Revenue, cash flows, etc. shown for 2008, but 2009 YTD shows significant decline not reflected in a lower sale price.
I am not discouraged, nor should you be, because there are good businesses out there. It just takes a while to find a good one. Notice I said "good," not "great," because I think one would run around forever if you were rigid in all your criteria thinking that there is a perfect business out there.
In the meantime, I do recommend lining up a list of trusted experts: legal, accounting, and if you want, a business valuation firm. First, though, spend some time writing down the criteria you have to guide you. Put as many or as few factors down, and change as needed, but do it. Otherwise you will never know when the right business is in sight. Clearly you've thought about some of this, but need to document it. Example criteria: cost, financing limits, rates; industries; location(s); expertise you bring (financial, marketing, etc); lifestyle criteria (7 days a week business? weekdays only?).
Best of luck,