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Tips for hiring a contractor

Get everything in writing, experts suggest

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HOUSTON – In light of Monday's report, here are some helpful tips on hiring a contractor.

Do your research. Contact your local BBB (Better Business Bureau of Houston and Greater South Texas) to learn how long a contractor has been in business and if the firm has been responsive to any complaints filed with the BBB. Also search online for any other information you can find on the company or owner.

Get multiple estimates. When hiring a contractor to do any type of work, get at least three estimates. Make sure the contractors have proof of insurance. Ask if a permit is required for the project. Qualified contractors are able to acquire any permits before starting the job. Check out a contractor at bbb.org to see how long he or she has been in business, if the person is accredited, and if there are any complaints against the business.  

Check references. Look at more than what the contractor supplies. If possible, ask to visit previous jobs and interview the given references. Ask the previous customers if the job was completed to their specifications and if it was completed on schedule. Ask why they would recommend that particular contractor and if they would use the business again. It is also important to find out if the original estimate was close to what they paid or if the contractor charged unforeseen costs along the way.

Never pay upfront. Try to arrange a low down payment and only pay the contractor according to how much work has been completed. Do not make the final payment until the job is completed and the final project meets your standards. Always pay with either a credit card or check -- never cash.

Get everything in writing. Ask the contractor for a written agreement that clearly includes all of the project details. The contract should consist of: contact information, a payment schedule, an estimated completion date, the materials being used and their cost, warranties and any specific promises. Make sure to include that the contractor is accountable for cleaning up the area after completion of the project. Never sign a blank contract or any contract without reading it thoroughly. Keep a copy of the contract after the job is completed in case there is an issue.

Cancellation rights. When you sign a home improvement contract in your home and in the presence of a contractor or contractor's representative, you have three business days in which to change your mind and cancel the contract. The contractor is required to tell you about your cancellation rights and provide you with any cancellation forms. If you cancel, it is recommended that a notice of cancellation be sent to the contractor by certified mail, with a return receipt request.

Avoid contractors who:
--Sell door to door or have extra material from their last job.
--Ask for payments in cash or want the full payment upfront.
--Pressure homeowners to sign a contract.
--Tell the customers to borrow money from their lender.
--Ask customers to get the building permit.

And never make final payment or sign an affidavit of final release until you are satisfied with the work done and know that all subcontractors and suppliers have been paid.