Conducting the Interview
Once you've settled on three potential contractors, arrange a time for each one to take a look at the project. You're looking for someone with a good reputation who has the skills and experience to deliver a quality job at a fair price, sure, but that's not all. The contractor and his crew will be spending a lot of time in your house, so ask a lot of questions.

Ask about anything you don't understand, including terminology. He might refer to "bullnose" or "ogee" when discussing countertop edges, and if you don't know the difference you might not get the shape you want. Ask about things you do understand, too — it's a great way to assess the scope of someone's knowledge. Gather information in one interview and use it in the next. If Contractor Jones says, "I'd replace that trim rather than trying to repair it," ask Contractor Smith, "Do you think it's worth repairing that trim, or should we just replace it?" There may be more than one right answer in a given situation, but the response will tell you if the contractor has the training, experience, and judgment to make decisions you'll feel comfortable with.

Getting References
Ask any contractor you're considering for at least five references; contact at least three. ("But ignore the first one," says TOH plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey. "It's usually the brother-in-law.") The closer the projects are in scope and style to your own, the better. Get previous clients to give you details of the contractor's dependability and workmanship, how he handled problems, whether the budget stayed intact, and if work progressed on or close to schedule. Bottom-line question: Would you hire the same person again?

Assessing the Bids
The low bid isn't likely to be top-quality construction, and the high bid isn't a guarantee of the best work. Some contractors submit a high bid if they don't really want the job or don't have time to come up with a more accurate proposal. When hiring people to work on his own house, TOH general contractor Tom Silva generally tosses out the lowest and the highest bids, figuring that the ones in the middle are the most realistic.

Discuss up front how the contractor expects to be paid. Payments for large projects are typically spread out over three to six intervals, based on various completion benchmarks. The first payment is a deposit and seals the deal. The last is usually 10 to 15 percent of the total, delivered upon your approval of the project. Beware of anyone who demands cash payments; you won't have any proof of how much you've handed over. A contractor who asks for his full fee up front is probably a crook.

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