What You Need to Know About Hiring a Contractor

Find the perfect person for the job, then put the details in writing to be sure you're on the same page.

This story has been updated since it originally published.

1. Go online before you sign. Referrals from people you trust are your best bet. But if you don't have that luxury, some Web sites can make your hunt easier. ServiceMagic.com, which lists more than 80,000 providers, says that less than 0.1% of its referrals result in user complaints. The site charges listees (your search is free) and screens contractors to make sure they are licensed and have passed criminal-background checks. Using an unlicensed contractor in a state that requires a license is dangerous -- you'll have little legal recourse if the job goes south. (To see which states license contractors, visit www.contractors-license.org.)

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Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance