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Hiring a contractor

You think you've met the right guy. He looks good at first glance, and he sweet-talks you with his plans and his muscles.

You might even give him money.

And then … you realize you've chosen a dud.

No, this isn't about the dating scene. It's about the pitfalls of picking the wrong home remodeling contractor. The Fixer's mailbag is filled with letters from readers who didn't choose wisely and wound up losing a lot of money.

There are ways to protect yourself, though.

First, make sure you've carefully planned your project so you're clear on what, specifically, needs to be done. Once you're ready to hire someone, here are some tips, courtesy of the local Better Business Bureau and the Illinois Attorney General's Office:

Make sure you get at least two or three bids based on the same exact specifications.

Do not automatically choose the lowest price. Think about the quality of the materials and the workmanship included in each bid.

Ask for local references and check them out. If you can, stop by and see the work for yourself.

Find out whether the contractor is a member of a professional association that has standards and a code of ethics.

Check them out with the Better Business Bureau, the Illinois Attorney General and other consumer agencies to see how long they've been in business and how they respond to complaints.

Make sure the contractor pulls the proper building permits.

Get all agreements and oral promises in writing.

The contract should include: a thorough description of the job, including specific materials; the start and finish dates; the total cost, with a breakdown of labor and materials; the payment schedule; any warranty information; and the contractor's full name, address, phone number and professional license number.

Make every attempt to pay just a minimal down payment -- or no down payment, especially if you're a previous customer. Never pay for incomplete work.

Get a copy of the signed contract. They're actually required to give you this, under the Illinois Home Repair and Remodeling Act, for any job costing more than $1,000. The contractor also must provide you with a pamphlet called "Home Repair: Know Your Consumer Rights."

Make sure the contractor has insurance. In Illinois, contractors must carry at least minimum insurance for property damage, bodily injury and improper home repair. Call the insurer to verify coverage.

If you sign the contract in your home in the contractor's presence, you have three business days to cancel.

For large jobs with many subcontractors, protect yourself with a release-of-lien clause to the contract or by placing the payments in an escrow account.

Be flexible. Home remodeling sometimes uncovers other, hidden problems with your house that need to be addressed.

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