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Typically more than 40 percent of complaints against general contractors and building and construction trade companies hired by homeowners go unanswered, according to statistics from the Better Business Bureau.

But guess what?

There are far more builders who are good at what they do.

It's up to the homeowner to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Begin with referrals from family, friends, co-workers and other trusted people who've recently enjoyed a satisfactory home improvement project. There's nothing like a referral to a paid contractor who's just off an approved job.

Spend time checking out the background of several contractors you’re considering for the job and do a background and financial check on any subcontractors.

Check the referrals through your state licensing agency. The license typically only comes with approved education and or experience and adherence to regulations. It also means you have somewhere to go to complain and seek redress should something go amiss. Don't hire an unlicensed contractor. He or she doesn't care enough to abide by the law. You don't want an outlaw in your home.

Run other checks on your referrals.

Experian, known more for credit reporting services, offers a ContractorCheck.com service. It allows consumers to search for contractors in their area, check a specific contractor’s business background, his or her bonded status, the status of his business license and insurance, how long the company has been in business, and if the contractor has any judgments or liens against him.

Other operations, including Angie's List; the League of California Homeowners and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry all offer similar services that take some of the guess work out of checking contractors' professional standing. There are plenty more.

Also check the contractor's standing with his or her local trade group. If you can successfully run your contractor's credentials through the state regulatory agency, consumer advocacy groups like ContractorCheck.com and a trade group, chances are you'll know if you've got a winner or loser.

But there's even more you can do.

Avoid door-to-door solicitors, those who only accept cash, contractors without a listed business number in the local telephone directory (licensed or not) or Web site, or contractors offering deals to do your project with materials "leftover" from a previous job.

Likewise reject contractors who want you to obtain required building permits or those who offer a referral fee if you find them new customers.

Beware of offers that appear too good to be true, including exceptionally long guarantees or offers to do your home as a "demonstration project."

Take your business elsewhere if a contractor pressures you for an immediate decision to hire or insists you borrow money for the project through his preferred lender.

Good contractors will give you a binding estimate in writing. They also won’t work without a written contract. Don't accept verbal agreements.

Get a contract that clearly spells out, in easy-to-understand terms, exactly what the project will cost, what will be accomplished, the anticipated time frame for completing the job and a payment plan.

Accept only payment plans that let you pay as you go. Never pay for work upfront. Never fully pay for the job until the work is complete, inspected and satisfactory.

Don’t hesitate to get an attorney to review the contract before you sign it, especially if you are dealing with a high-price-tag project.

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