There's no leap of faith like picking a stranger to pound holes in your house in exchange for thousands of dollars.
If you're planning a major home improvement this spring, here's how you select a contractor: very carefully.
"The big no-no that we always tell people is don't just pick somebody out of the yellow pages. Don't just pick the company with the biggest ad or the company that starts with the letter A," said Dennis Rosen, New York's assistant attorney general in Buffalo.
Both the attorney general's office and the Better Business Bureau get a lot of complaints about home-improvement problems. Finding the right contractor to renovate your kitchen or install a new roof can make a difference in the long-term value of your house.
For computer users, this is one area where the Internet can be an invaluable resource. Web magazines, such as Remodeling Online, provide the national average cost for different home improvements and a wealth of information on planning a project.
The Buffalo Better Business Bureau's site at www.buffalo.bbb.org includes a step-by-step guide for selecting a contractor and free reports on local companies.
"This is hands down the place to go for consumer advice. We have all our local information on there and all our national information," said David Polino, president of the Buffalo Better Business Bureau.
Some sites, such as Improvenet.com, prescreen companies on a set of legal and financial criteria and help match customers with contractors.
Getting quotes from a couple of different contractors is important, Polino said. There is too much money involved in home-improvement work to give the job to the first guy or gal who comes along.
Make sure you understand if the bids received all include the same building specifications and materials. One company's bid might be 10 percent higher than another company's because higher quality building materials are being proposed.
Consumer experts warn against automatically picking the lowest bidder without checking out the company's reputation. Selecting solely on price leaves you exposed to low-ball artists who intentionally underbid to get jobs and then skimp on workmanship.
The state gives bad contractors a lot of room to operate, because licensing is done at the town level, Rosen said. So a contractor who builds a bad track record in one part of the state can move on and get licensed in another town.
"You certainly want to check on your contractor through the Better Business Bureau," said Michael Piette, an attorney who chairs the Bar Association of Erie County's Real Property Law Committee. "A lot will come down to the reputation of the builder."
The Better Business Bureau will provide free reports, available by phone or Internet, on its member companies. The reports include how many complaints have been filed about the company and how they were resolved.
Obtaining two or three references from the contractor also helps. Call those references and, if possible, drive by the houses to get a glimpse of the work.
Also, check to make sure the contractor is insured against claims covering worker's compensation and personal liability in case an accident happens when the crew is tearing your house apart. Ask to see valid certificates of insurance or get the name and phone number of the company's insurance agency.
Get it in writing
The job contract will become your most important document. Do not just sign a copy of the estimate, you want a written contract specifying details of the work, types of materials, colors and any other pertinent details.
"You would be surprised at how many people enter an expensive home improvement with a contract that's so broad it provides no protection at all," Polino said.
The contract should also include a breakdown of labor and material charges, a payment schedule, specifics about any labor and product warranties and the method of debris removal, according to the Better Business Bureau.
New York law also requires work dates in writing.
"The statute says there has to be a definitive beginning date and a definitive ending date in the contract. Because one of the problems you run into a lot is "I gave the guy a check and haven't heard from him since,' " Rosen said.
Projects can be adjusted based on mitigating circumstances, such as weather delays, but having a detailed contract in place gives consumers a lot of protection.
Most contractors will want a down payment. The Better Business Bureau recommends paying no more than one-third up front. Contractors are prohibited, by state law, from using your money to finish a different job.
"One of two things has to happen when you give him a check, it either has to go into a trust account or he has to spend it on your job," Rosen said.
Some customers also ask for a "release-of-lien" clause in the contract. This is an additional protection in the event your contract fails to pay a sub-contractor, such as a plumber or electrician brought in for renovation work.
Piette said some homeowners end up spending months cleaning up mechanic's liens filed against their property for work they already paid for.
"It's not likely that you'll ever pay twice for the same job. The problem is the time and the expense of making the problem go away," said Piette, of Jaeckle, Fleischmann & Mugel in Buffalo.
After any home improvement contract is signed, state law gives consumers a three-day cooling off period in which the deal can be canceled.