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How to find a contractor you'll love

To nab a good home improvement professional, look for these signs of excellence (or trouble).

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By Josh Garskof, Money Magazine contributing writer

Ask the right questions
Call at least three references (start in the middle of the list) whose projects were similar to yours. In addition to standard queries about the quality of the work and any cost overruns, gain more insight by asking the following:
How has the work held up over time?
Make sure to talk to one homeowner who had the work done at least a few years ago - enough time for flaws to reveal themselves.
Was the contractor easy to reach?
You want a contractor who picks up his cell phone right away when you call him - or at least returns messages within a few hours.
How were problems resolved?
Every job will hit snags; the real test of a contractors merit is how well he handles them. He should have been able to minimize delays, added expense and anxiety - and get the job done right in the end.
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(Money Magazine) -- One upside to the popped real estate bubble is that hiring contractors has suddenly become a lot easier. A couple of years ago, it seemed like you had to be an A-list celebrity or a hedge fund tycoon to get one to so much as call you back. But with homeowners increasingly hesitant to plow big bucks into home improvement, even the best contractors might pick up your call before the second ring.

Still, just because he's responsive now doesn't mean he will be when you're in the middle of a project - or that he'll do quality work that's on time and on budget. So here are nine telltale signs, both good and bad, that you can watch for when you're interviewing any home improvement contractors, from roofers to foundation repairers.

Green light

While these indicators don't guarantee that you've found the next Norm Abram, they should give you confidence.

He has a good rep in the industry. You already ask friends and neighbors to recommend good contractors, but a more reliable source of referrals is other people in the trades: a plumber you love who raves about a general contractor, for example, or a great tile shop that suggests a tile setter.

They've done business with him, they know how well he plies his craft, and if they're willing to put their professional reputations on the line by vouching for him, they must like what they see.

His business card includes a local address. A tradesman who provides a physical address that's in your community is far less likely to disappear on you than someone whose true locale is hidden behind a post office box.

His list of references is a mile long. Even terrible contractors have had a few happy clients along the way - or have family members who can play the part when you call. The longer the list of references, the less likely it's rigged.

"Call a handful of them, skipping around the list," says Angie Hicks, the founder of angieslist.com, where (for a monthly fee of $4.50 to $8.75, depending on where you live) customers can praise or pan people they've worked with - and read one another's reviews.

Yellow light

There are some good-but-quirky tradesmen who exhibit the following traits. Think twice about hiring them unless every other indicator looks terrific.

He drives a rusted-out jalopy. A bucket of bolts that leaves an oil slick in your driveway doesn't bode well for the attention to detail or fiscal stability of the person driving it.

"That's not to say everyone has to ride around in a gleaming new truck," says Dick Mitchell, president of the New Orleans branch of the Better Business Bureau, the national nonprofit that lends its logo to participating companies meeting its standards (you can find a searchable list of member contractors at bbb.org). "But it should be clean and well maintained." Painted-on signs are better than magnetic ones, which are cheap and temporary.

He wants cash. Even if you don't care that he's shirking his taxes by taking cash (or a check made out to cash), consider what other costs he may be cutting - like licensing fees, insurance bills and skilled crew members.

To investigate a potential contractor's finances, look him up at contractorcheck.com, where (for $13) you can find information about his licensing, insurance and financial stability, as well as any legal actions against him.

He doesn't provide a cell number. Sure, you might find the rare contractor who has someone (probably his wife) manning his business line. But for the most part, the only way to quickly get hold of a tradesman is by cell phone. If he doesn't want to give out that number, it isn't because he's conserving his minutes - he doesn't want to be reachable.

Red light

If you see any of these signs, don't hire the guy - even if you've had good luck working with him before.

He wants to skip the permit - or have you apply for it. Any major improvement project legally requires a building permit, which means that inspectors will check the work. If a contractor wants to go without a permit, it means he'd rather not have anyone looking over his shoulder (other than you, but let's face it, you don't know what to look for).

If he wants you to apply for the permit yourself, it could be because he doesn't have the necessary state licensing - and it means you'd be the middleman between the inspector and contractor instead of letting them work things out directly.

He solicits business door to door. A paving contractor rings your bell to say he just did a job in the neighborhood, has extra materials and will cut you a rock-bottom deal if he can work on yours that afternoon. Sounds great, right?

Trouble is, you have no idea who he is or if he's going to do the job right. And if that new pavement starts cracking three weeks later, you'll never get him back to repair the damage.

He seems sleazy. Ultimately, you have to feel comfortable letting this person into your home. Clearly, you're not going to hand your house keys to someone who flips a cigarette butt into your azaleas or leers at your 16-year-old daughter.

But if he doesn't look you straight in the eye or you just have a gut feeling that something might be amiss, go ahead and cross him off your list. Nowadays, thankfully, there are plenty of contractors available to do the job.  To top of page

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