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The Boston Globe

Business

Consumer Alert

Simple rules to avoid problems with home projects

Spring has sprung and homeowners across the state are gearing up for home improvement projects. So, it’s worth more than a gentle reminder that when those projects involve hiring a home improvement contractor, it’s important to follow guidelines to protect yourself.

Massachusetts has a program that can help in situations when a consumer is left in the lurch. But you’ve got to play by the rules first. And playing by those rules can save you by ensuring that you’re dealing with a registered contractor with insurance.

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It’s easy to check. Their registration number should appear on their advertising materials, contracts, and permits.

To verify registration — and see if any cases have been brought against them — the state has a searchable contractor registration database that can be found on the website of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation (www.mass.gov/ocabr).

Using a registered contractor gives you the ability to turn to the state if you run into a problem. And, in the worst case, allows you to apply for compensation from the state Guaranty Fund, which can provide up to $10,000 to cover certain uncollectible losses.

Before choosing a contractor, you will want to have three bidders provide you with detailed written estimates. Consumer Affairs recommends providing each of the contractors, in advance of getting the estimates, with a detailed description of the work to be done.

Ask them to provide a list of references and call them. Compare the differences between the bids, noting types of materials they propose using and other details that could account for price variations. Then choose one. Before you sign the contract, Consumer Affairs recommends that it include the contractor’s name and registration number, the total price and payment schedule, a detailed list of the materials and specifications, the start and end dates, how changes will be handled, a copy of the contractor’s insurance, and a warning that if you get your own building permits, you’ll be disqualified from collecting from the Guaranty Fund.

One more thing: State law prohibits contractors (with limited exception) from charging more than one-third of the job’s price before work begins.

Using an unlicensed contractor means tossing away your safety net.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers for the past two decades. He also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.

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