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5 steps to hiring the best contractor

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Hiring a contractor is a big decision for a lot of homeowners. It's a big commitment of time and money, but it's also an emotional decision based on building relationships. With so much on the line, it's easy to get overwhelmed.

So follow some simple steps and avoid some red flags to hire the best contractor, one who will help you build the space of your dreams.

1. Know what you want to do.

Don't go looking for a contractor before you know what you want to do and how much it's going to cost. While you don't need architectural drawings, you should have a clear idea of the scope of the work. Figure out what kind of flooring, countertops, cabinets or appliances you want. Know the type of expertise will be required to get the job done and what your budget is Having a solid plan will start the project off smoothly so you and your contractor are on the same page.

Red flag: If the contractor you've selected tells you he can't do what you want — or if you even get the slightest hint that he is out of his depth, save yourself some agony and find someone else. A good contractor should be able to do what you want, given enough time and money, said Geep Moore, Chairman of Remodelers for the National Association of Home Builders.

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2. Ask around.

Get recommendations from friends, neighbors or family members. You can also ask people that work with contractors like an electrician or a plumber.

Once you have a contractor or two in mind, ask them for their references. Ask what they thought of the contractor's work. Was he timely? Was he clean? Did he deliver what was promised? Are they satisfied with the work? Did they enjoy the collaborative experience?

You can also call the contractor's suppliers to see if he pays his bills on time.

Red flag: If he doesn't have a long list of legitimate references - at least two to three homeowners for whom he has done a lot of work recently - and a list of suppliers you can contact, try someone else.

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3. Do a background check.

Even though you've contacted references, you need to check this guy out for yourself. In addition to using Google to find out whether the contractor has been involved with any litigation or has unhappy customers who have flocked to the web to air their grievances, you'll want to do a deep dive to find out whether the contractor is licensed and insured.

"The most important thing when you're looking for a contractor is to make sure they are properly licensed and insured," Moore said, adding that the contractor should have liability insurance and worker's compensation. You don't want to be held accountable if one of his workers is injured on the job at your home.

You can also check the Better Business Bureau for any complaints at bbbonline.org.

Red flag: It's pretty easy to forge documents these days. All it takes is Photoshop. So, if the contractor wants to show you these documents himself, he may have forged them. Get the insurance documents directly from his insurance company. Verify with your state that he meets the licensing and registration requirements. Make sure he can pull permits with your local municipality, and never pull a permit for him. Expect to spend several hours (at least!) on the web looking for background information on your contractor.

4. Sign a contract.

The contract you sign with your contractor should detail everything from the type of materials you want used to the time frame of the work, keeping in mind that it will not change. Get a quote as opposed to an estimate. Ask any question you have.

Red flag: Your contractor should be able to answer all your questions and should be easy to communicate with. If you feel he is withholding important information, you may want to walk away.

5. Make a down payment.

It may be nerve-racking to let that first payment go without seeing any work, but you should expect a down payment of about one-third of the total amount. The contractor has to go out and buy all the materials to begin the job, so if you don't put down a deposit, you're basically asking him to float you that money.

Red flag: Never agree to pay in cash or give a full payment upfront. Make sure future payments are contingent upon completion of the work. Hold back at least 10 percent of the total amount until you are completely satisfied with the work.

"Don't ignore your gut," Moore said. "Do your research, but listen to your gut if it tells you something isn't right."

Ilyce Glink is an award-winning, nationally syndicated real estate columnist, blogger and radio talk show host, and managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Glink.

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