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How do you interview a prospective contractor?

When you're contemplating doing a building project in your home, you should talk to at least three potential contractors to make sure you find someone dependable who will do the job right. Here's what to ask them in order to make your decision:

Find out his business history: whether he's licensed, pays his workers legally and has insurance for liability, property damage and workers' compensation. Find out how long he's been in business and whether he's ever been sued or has declared bankruptcy. Get a list of references that used him for similar projects and find out whether other customers were satisfied with his work.

Ask who will be doing the actual work and how workers will be supervised. If subcontractors will be involved, ask them all the above questions and ask them for lien releases or waivers for each payment. Find out how much time the contractor will be spending on your project and how many other projects he's simultaneously involved in.

Make sure the contractor can give you start and end dates for the projects - this includes cleanup. Get the work timetable and the list of materials put down in writing. Ask references whether the contractor stuck to his completion dates for their projects.

Make sure you understand the contract and confirm that it includes everything you want before you sign it. Hammer out all the details, including a warranty. Keep all invoices and records of payments. Make sure your contractor knows he's in charge of getting all the required permits and approvals for the project.

Get an itemized price estimate from every contractor you interview and then compare them. A low estimate might mean you'll end up with unsatisfactory work while a high estimate might mean that the other contractors are missing something and their estimates may not be accurate.

Negotiate a payment schedule and allow for changes and surprise expenses. Never pay for something you haven't gotten yet, and NEVER sign the last check until you're happy with the finished project.