Get recommendations from neighbors and friends. Or cast a wider net with a Facebook status update or by logging onto sites like ServiceMagic.com, which matches you with prescreened pros in your area, or AngiesList.com, where you'll find reviews from other homeowners.
Interview a few
Two or three people should suffice, but don't stop until you find someone you're comfortable with. Ask how long he's been in business and the expected duration and cost of the job. Be as specific as possible when describing the project and giving info on materials and products you're interested in using. Ask for references and a certificate for workers' compensation and liability insurance; if licensing is required in your state (find out at Contractors-License.org), get a license number.
Do a background check
Got your person? Phone a couple of references and visit a client whose job has been completed to check out the contractor's work. Call his insurance agency to confirm a current policy and verify his license with your state's contractor board. Finally, check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure no complaints or suits have been filed.
Discuss the payment plan
Find out how much you'll need to put down up front; anything less than 15 percent of the total bill is reasonable. For large projects, you may be asked to pay in increments—always a good idea. This way you can inspect the work as it's being done and make installments contingent on meeting certain benchmarks. You'll want to aim to have about 20 percent of the tab left over at the end. This ensures the contractor will be motivated to properly finish the job.
Get everything in writing
Before you accept a bid, be sure to get a contract that includes the estimated start and end dates, payment schedule and a list of all of the materials. If any adjustments are made along the way, the contractor should give a "change order" or written notice of the modification to the contract. For a small job, you may not receive a contract: Ask for one or draw one up yourself. Seriously! It can really be as simple as an email specifying the scope and agreed-upon cost.
Survey before you settle up
Do a final walk-through with the contractor and make sure everything in your contract is complete. If it's not or you're unsatisfied with the work, make a "punch list," which details the things that need to be done before you make the final payment.
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