We’ve all heard the stories, and maybe you’ve been there yourself: You hire a contractor to renovate your kitchen or bathroom, and you could write a novel about the horrors of the ordeal — the project takes twice as long or costs twice as much as expected, the contractors leave a huge mess for you to clean up, or they botch the job and never respond to your desperate pleas to fix it.

Finding the perfect contractor to create and complete gorgeous home improvement projects isn't something that happens by chance. Choosing a contractor you can trust means doing research and understanding what you need to see and hear from them — and what you don't.

To get started, talk to neighbors and friends in your area to see if they’ve used a contractor they would recommend. But consider that a starting point, not the finish line.

Find out if your state, county or city licenses contractors. Licensing or registration means there's some accountability — and a place where you can complain if a problem arises. It also typically guarantees the contractor will have at least a minimum amount of insurance and that they are following rules intended to protect consumers. If licensing or registration is required, don't consider a contractor who doesn't have it.

Next, check with the licensing agency to see if any complaints were filed against a contractor you’re considering. Also, see what you find in a basic Internet search, and check the Better Business Bureau database.

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Before you decide on one contractor, identify at least three you would consider. Invite them to visit your home, evaluate the job and provide a detailed written estimate. If they want to charge you for an estimate or don't want to put the details in writing, thank them and move on.

Here are some other warning signs that should send you running:

  • The contractor asks for cash upfront
  • You're pressured to commit on the spot
  • He wants you to apply for any necessary permits (rather than applying for them himself)

Getting the details of a prospective job in writing is vital. Those details should include the materials the contractor plans to use, how long the job will take and an approximation of how much it will cost. This is the foundation of a contract to ensure the job will go along as agreed.

For the same job, three different contractors likely will offer three different paths that may include using different materials. You'll have to determine which option is right for you. Also consider how well you were able to communicate with each contractor. After all, you’re starting a relationship that’s going to last for a while, and in any relationship, communication is key.

The lowest-priced estimate is not necessarily the best one. In fact, if one is far lower than the others, consider what might be missing. On the other hand, a low estimate shouldn't disqualify a contractor, either. Try to find out what extra costs you could be on the hook for if you decide to go with the cheapest estimate.

Be mindful that popular contractors have busy schedules, and you might have to wait a while to get your work done. Decide how significant that is. Also ask how much the contractor will be on site overseeing the work or whether an employee or subcontractor will be the main person on the job.

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Once you've settled on a contractor, before you sign on the dotted line, ask if you can talk with a few recent customers and look at the work that was done. Don't just rely on written testimonials. A good contractor will have plenty of former customers who will vouch for their work.

After you’ve heard and seen enough to make your final decision, sign a contract that includes performance goals tied to payments. Don’t pay a deposit of more than one-third of the total estimate — the final cost may end up being less than that. The exception to limiting up-front payments comes when special-order materials are needed.

The next payment should be made when a certain amount of work or a specific portion of the work is complete. The final payment should not be made until the entire job is finished to your satisfaction. While a real pro will come back to tweak things after you've paid all you agreed to, plenty of other contractors won't.

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Mitch Lipka is a consumer columnist and product safety expert. He was the 2011 recipient of the "Kids Best Friend Award" from Kids In Danger for his commitment to reporting on children’s product safety.

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