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Contractor expert answers common home-improvement questions

Q: I know I have to check a contractor's license before I hire one, but what other precautions should I take?

A: You should verify that contractors have general liability and workers' compensation insurance if they have employees. Check the contractor with your local building department, trade association, union, consumer protection agency, consumer fraud unit in the district attorney's office and the Better Business Bureau. The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) recommends you get three references and look at pictures or view past work. This should be done before a contractor is selected or a contract is drafted and signed to ensure that your contractor is a qualified professional and to increase your chances of being satisfied with the work. For more information on how to hire and manage a licensed contractor, refer to the free consumer publication "What You Should Know Before You Hire a Contractor," available on the CSLB's Web site or by phone.

Q: Large mudslides hit my neighborhood last year. When repairing damages, a door-to-door contractor scammed my neighbor. Hard rains and mudslides are frequent in this area, and I'm concerned that if my home gets damaged by the harsh weather this year, it could happen to me. What should I do to avoid getting taken by someone offering to make repairs on my home, especially in an emergency situation?

A: Don't ever feel pressured by someone selling contractor services door to door. In fact, if you sign a contract with someone who has solicited your business, you have three business days to cancel the contract. The exception is a service and repair contract for emergency repairs under $750, which takes effect when the contract is signed and work begins.

Try to get at least three bids from different contractors. Check their licenses on the CSLB Web site or by calling before hiring one. Although this may slow down your repair process, it's better than having an unlicensed, fraudulent operator do poor work and possibly swindle you out of money, too.

For more information on how to hire a contractor after a disaster, refer to the free publication "After a Disaster, Don't Get Scammed," available on CSLB's Web site.

Q: I am interested in having some remodeling work done to my bathroom. I've heard there are many types of contractors. Which one would be right for my project?

A: In California, the CSLB issues licenses in 43 different classifications, including general and specialty contractors. General building contractors usually oversee projects and coordinate subcontractors for specific jobs. Subcontractors specializing in a certain trade are hired to do single jobs on a larger project. For example, general contractors hired to remodel a bathroom may hire a subcontractor specializing in tiling to lay the tile around the sink and in the bath. They can also hire an electrician for that work as well as a plumber or painter. If the job involves framing and at least two different specialties, general building contractors may do the work themselves. If not, they must hire subcontractors.

For more information or to verify a contractor's license, bond and workers' compensation insurance information, visit the CSLB Web site at www.cslb.ca.gov or call (800)-321-CSLB (2752).

Matt Kelly is chairman of the Contractors State License Board. The board operates under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. The CSLB licenses and regulates California's 302,000 contractors and investigates more than 20,000 complaints against contractors annually.

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