Q: I’m now getting estimates to add a front porch to my house. What is the standard way to check on the licensing and insurance of the contractor, and the standard method of payment, such as certain percentage paid upfront or at the finish? –Connie D.

A: There are actually a couple of steps that I recommend to anyone looking to hire a contractor:

1. Know specifically what you want to have done. The more information you have available for the contractor, the better.

2. Try to get personal referrals, rather than relying on the phone book. If you have a friend or a relative who had some work done on their home that they were pleased with, that’s a great starting point. You can get some honest feedback about the contractor’s skill level, price, scheduling, level of cooperation, and much more. There are a lot of contractors out there to choose from, and, like most businesses, they succeed or fail mostly by their reputation, so a good referral is very helpful.

There are other sources of referrals as well. If you see some work going on down the street, stop and talk to the homeowner. Most people are more than willing to share their experiences — good and bad — about the contractor they’ve hired, and here again you can get some great firsthand information.

Material suppliers are also great sources. Ask the people where you buy your lumber or your plumbing supplies if they know of anyone who’s particularly good at the type of project you have in mind. Retailers have a reputation to protect as well — they want to keep you happy and coming back as a customer — so they will typically refer only those contractors who they know are honest and will do a quality job.

Other good sources of referrals include real estate agents, insurance agents, property managers, your utility company, and your local building department.

3. When you have a referral or two, call the contractors to set up an appointment. Ask the following four questions:

  • Do they do the specific type of work you’re looking for? It could be they no longer do kitchens or room additions, or they now do remodeling and have stopped building new homes. Clarify that upfront.
  • What is their schedule like? If you have a project that has to be done within the next month and the contractor can’t even start until then, there’s no point in wasting your time or theirs.
  • Can they provide you with referrals? Most companies are more than willing to provide you with names and phone numbers of past clients. If they can’t or won’t provide you with referrals, don’t hire them. Between the time you call the contractor and the time they come out, be sure to follow up on a couple of the referrals and get some feedback from the homeowners. If possible, see if the referral would mind if you came out to their home to view the contractor’s work in person.
  • What is the contractor’s name and license number? Get the contractor’s full legal business name, address and business phone number, as well as their contractor’s license number. Immediately follow up on this information, and call the contractor’s board to verify the status of the license and that all of the proper bonds and insurance policies are in place.

4. Have a written contract that describes all the details of your agreement with the contractor, including materials to be used, a description of what’s to be done, beginning and completion dates, price, and a payment schedule. Never pay in full upfront, even if you’re offered a discount. Make a reasonable down payment if it’s requested, typically no more than 20 percent, then make payments as the job progresses. The payments should be tied to specific completions, such as completion of frame inspection, completion of final inspection, or something else that you can easily verify.

For more information about the proper steps in hiring a contractor, including state-by-state licensing information, you can also download my book, "Hire the Right Contractor for Your Home," from Amazon.com.

Q: Any advice on what product to use to winterize plumbing/toilets? We tried RV Antifreeze designed for RV plumbing and it left black slime and a heavy black rim on the toilet tank. –Marsh C.

A: The proper material to use is a nontoxic propylene glycol antifreeze, which is what’s found in most RV antifreeze products. After you’ve shut the water to the toilet and flushed it to remove as much water as possible, the antifreeze should be added to the tank, then the toilet flushed again. This will circulate the antifreeze to all parts of the toilet tank and bowl, as well as the trap. You also want to pour some down sink traps to protect them as well.

I don’t know what caused the black rim you mention. While most RV antifreezes are intended to be used straight from the bottle, some types need to be diluted with water before use. It’s possible that’s the problem. Be sure to read the mixing instructions on the bottle before use.

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