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I'm looking around for a contractor to remodel a bathroom. Having heard such horror stories, what do you suggest I do to investigate for the best one to do the job? – Robert Renovator

Dear Mr. Renovator: Having been the butt of slippery tactics in the past (even I infrequently make mistakes that cost a bundle), "investigate" is the operative term. In fact, the more information we can discover about any and all possible contractors, the better. The following tips, thanks to Consumer Reports and yours truly offer the best protection for the best job.

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Ellen Phillips

» Always ask for and follow up with recommendations. Avoid like the plague anyone who rings your doorbell or who contacts you unsolicited and be careful of those who advertise in the newspaper, even if they offer a huge deduction in price if you hire them. Actually, beware scam tactics, such as "I'm working in the neighborhood and happened to look at your roof"; "This fantastic deal is only for today"; or "You must pay upfront or 2/3 of the job" (See below.) All of the aforementioned are cons. Step. Away. Instead, contact family, friends, and colleagues.

» Check agencies for further referrals as well as for qualifications. In addition to family, friends, et.al, check with your state consumer protection agency (tn.gov/commerce/consumer-affairs.html; http://consumer.georgia.gov/consumer-services; and https://ago.alabama.gov.). Another department, the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org/council) counts complaints, as well as those that haven't been repaired. Finally, for any contractor, search the Web using his/her/company name, along with words like "complaints," or "reviews."

» Check in with the National Association of the Remodeling Industry for a list of members in the area. Also talk with a building inspector who'll know which home renovation contractors routinely meet code requirements, says This Old House general contractor Tom Silva, or pay a visit to your local lumberyard, which sees contractors regularly and knows which ones buy quality materials and pay their bills on time.

» Once you've assembled a list, Silva recommends we make a quick call to each of our prospects and go through these questions to ask a contractor: do they take on projects of this size; are they willing to provide financial references from suppliers or banks; can they give a list of previous clients; how many other projects would they have going at the same time; and how long have they worked with their subcontractors? The answers to these questions will reveal the company's availability, reliability, how much attention they'll be able to give your project, and how smoothly the work will go.

» Get everything in writing. As I've preached a hundred (or more!) times, a person's "word" isn't necessarily the bond it's cracked up to be these days; therefore, require he or she gives you a written contract, plus obtain all warranties in writing.

» Know your rights. In most cases, states allow consumers three days to cancel home-improvement contracts. In fact, even federal law gives us three days to cancel most contracts that are signed in our homes or outside the contractor's regular place of business.

So how do consumers know we're most likely looking into the face of a scammer? The solicitor who, for instance, says he's working nearby and has leftover materials on for which you'll receive a cheap price is always a no-no. Beware anyone who informs us that the "deal" is only good for today; take time to do your homework. Avoid like the plague the supposed legitimate contractor who demands a substantial or even the full amount before work commences; someone on the up-and-up knows to expect one-third down to purchase materials, the second third halfway through the job, and the final amount at its conclusion when you are satisfied. Being hard to reach is another red flag, as is an unmarked vehicle and no BBB information on him or his company. And, finally, he tries to push you to a state of panic to hire him; for example, "I see your roof is fixing to fall in" would make most of us panic for our safety and that of our families. Contact the authorities.

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com

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