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Planning spring home improvements? How to find the right contractor

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(ARA) - You've got a list of spring home improvements to do, a vision for getting them done, and you even have a budget. Now all you need is someone to do the work; it's time to hire a contractor. Yet even the best-laid home improvement plans can go awry if you hire the wrong person or company to do the job.

Even if this is your first home improvement project, and your first time hiring a contractor, you've probably heard some horror stories: contractors who overcharge, underestimate the actual cost of a job, drag a project out weeks longer than it should take, or simply leave a job unfinished. While the majority of contractors are honest, you still need to check a contractor's business license, and the business's financial stability, before you hire anyone for your spring home improvement project.

Fortunately, with a few simple steps, you can help ensure you choose the right contractor for your job:

Find out about his finances

Credit issues are common during difficult financial times. While the presence of issues concerning a contracting company's financial background doesn't necessarily mean the owner is a bad person, credit problems could directly affect his ability to do a job. Contractors with limited access to credit may be unable to buy the materials they need or hire the help required to complete your project.

Online resources like ContractorCheck.com, by Experian, can help you check a contractor's credentials. Experian maintains a database of more than 5 million contractors and their businesses' information, and ContractorCheck.com allows you to view this data, which includes critical information such as:

* Company name, address and phone number

* Multiple operating addresses

* How long the company has been in business

* License, bonding and insurance information

* Contractor specialties

* A credit review that will reveal any past collection or derogatory credit events

* An easy-to-understand contractor rating

Additionally, ContractorCheck.com reports include public record information such as liens or judgments against the business - important information considering that according to a recent review of Experian's database, 8.4 percent of contractors had a lien on file and 6.2 percent had a judgment filed against them.

Stay alert for signs of trouble

Most contractors operate within the law, but it pays to know the warning signs of one who is not honorable and honest. Consider these tips from the Federal Trade Commission:

* Contractors who solicit door-to-door, only accept cash or who don't have a phone number associated with a valid business address should ring your warning bell. Beware of offers to discount a job by a contractor who says he will use materials left over from a previous project.

* Steer clear of contractors who expect you to obtain necessary permits for your project, or who want you to find them new customers in exchange for discounts. It's his responsibility to obtain permits and new customers.

* If a contractor's offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Watch for warning signs like an extremely long guarantee period or an offer to discount your job as a "demonstration."

* Shut down contractors who engage in high-pressure pitches. If a contractor tells you he needs an immediate answer from you, tell him your answer is "no." Or, if he or she wants you to fund your project through a preferred lender, consider taking your business to a more flexible contractor.

Finally, find out what others are saying about the contractor you're thinking of hiring. Word-of-mouth is one of the most reliable reporting methods when it comes to evaluating how well someone might do your job. Ask the contractor for the names and numbers of past clients he's worked with. But keep in mind, even a reputable contractor is only going to give you contact information for customers he knows were happy with his work, so use these references as one more piece of information, but don't base your decision on them.