Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

Today’s topic is how to find the right contractor. As anyone who has read me regularly over the last 30 years knows, I always start with an anecdote, so here goes:

I was invited to speak to a group of contractors about how consumers viewed them. My turn to speak came after two hours of an open bar and “entertainment” by a very bad comedian. I began by suggesting that the contractors return phone calls from consumers seeking estimates, which was and is the No. 1 complaint.

The response was loud and universal: Contractors don’t have time to waste pursuing leads that don’t turn into jobs. Most consumers seeking estimates have no intention of proceeding with the projects, they said. And if they do, they usually take the low-ball estimate, even if it means poor quality and shortcuts.

As much as I would like to disagree, I cannot. Imagine, if you can, 30 years of being asked to recommend plumbers, electricians, architects, carpenters, roofers – you name it – and maybe one out of every nine readers follow my advice.

This morning, for example, someone was looking for a plumber. I recommended the one I used for 18 years and whose work I have often praised in my columns.

“But he is expensive,” was the reply.

“You are paying for quality and reliability,” I said.

There was no response.

“You should only hire a contractor with whom you can communicate easily and intelligently.”

I am a newly minted Realtor as well as a veteran home improvement and real estate columnist. A few months ago, a fellow called me and asked me to find him a condominium in a certain building.

I showed him five, and then two more. He still cannot decide between his top two, even though they are exactly alike.

Have I abandoned him, even though he has been indecisive for five months? No. Every week, I send him an updated list of condos for sale. He may decide eventually. And, even if he does not, he may recommend me to someone else, based on how I have treated him.

Still, I understand why many contractors feel the way they do.

Studies of the remodeling industry by the Centers for Housing at Harvard University show that the majority of the nation’s independent contractors are small fry, maybe with one person who does most of the work themselves with the aid of subcontractors.

Workdays are long and filled with unpredictable events. Plumbers get tied up on other jobs and cannot come until the next day. Materials don’t arrive on time. The building inspector cancels an appointment, and the job grinds to a halt.

These factors limit the number of jobs the typical contractor can handle in a year. When consumers say that contractors are only interested in bigger jobs, this is the reason why.

The only time available for doing estimates is after the day’s work is done or on the weekends. That is also when the contractor returns phone calls. The contractor makes appointments for the convenience of the customer. He or she must discern what the customer wants because, even in the “age of the consumer,” few potential clients seem to be able to explain themselves clearly at the start.

Then the contractor needs to find the time to take all of the information the consumer has provided, do research, find the materials, come up with alternative plans, plot out the job, and estimate the costs.

Throughout the process, the contractor knows that the consumer has four or five other contractors doing the same thing, and he or she will likely go for the lowest bid.

Bottom line: Contractors have little time to waste estimating jobs they know they will never get. Consumers who call five contractors looking for estimates are wasting their time as well. Perhaps a couple of estimates, especially if the job is large and complicated, would be better.

I’m a big believer in word of mouth. People in need of a contractor should talk to friends and relatives who have had similar work done. You ask them for complete information on what the job entailed – from products, to labor, to time spent, to how the contract was written –including how well they and the contractor and subcontractors got along, and any problems that arose during the job and how they were solved.

No matter how many contractors you interview, you should ask each one the same questions. That also applies to architects, real estate professionals and anyone else to whom you will be entrusting great gobs of money.

Another thing I stress is that you should only hire a contractor with whom you can communicate easily and intelligently. There’s no reason you should pay a fortune to someone who is unwilling to discuss your concerns.

When I was young and inexperienced, I hired a contractor to work on my first house. From Day One, his answer to any request was “anything you want.” When he did show up to work, it was anything HE wanted. That is the contractor you should avoid.

Another important question to ask is how long the contractor has been in business. Many enterprises fail, especially in uncertain economic times, so you don’t want to employ a contractor who won’t be in business a year or two from now, in the event something needs fixing.

Other questions: How many people work for them? How long have their employees been with them? How many employees will they be able to dedicate to your project? Is work going to be subcontracted? If so, what work, to which subcontractors, and how long has the contractor been using them?

Some homeowners try to keep their job on schedule by offering bonuses if the contractor finishes on time or earlier. The downside is that to obtain the bonus, some jobs are rushed, and shortcuts are taken, so you don’t always end up a winner.

References are extremely important. My recommendation has always been to locate the jobs on which the contractors you interview are working now, visit the job sites, and ask the homeowners how things are going. If you wait until the job is completed, memories of good things, as well as bad ones, become distorted.

Once you’ve selected a contractor, make sure that every facet of your job – especially the products to be used in it – are spelled out fully on a written contract that neither you nor the contractor signs until you both have read and discussed it. If you need a lawyer to help you, hiring one is well worth it.

Any change orders must be spelled out contractually as well. If you change the kind of tile you want mid-job, you’ll need to get it down in writing, specifying if the new tile is more expensive than the original or will require costlier labor.

Contractors should provide proof of general liability and workers compensation insurance; in case your house or a neighbor’s is damaged during the project or one of the workers is injured on your job.

Have the contractors provide an estimate of the time when each phase of the work will be completed. That includes estimated start and completion dates. If any phase of the work requires the house to be open to the elements – an addition that requires removal of part of the roof of the existing house adjacent to the new section, try to get some idea of how long that will be and what precautions the contractor will take to limit potential damage.

Remember, start and completion dates are ESTIMATES. Stuff happens. I advise patience. A top-flight contractor will let you know as soon as he knows when things go awry.

Next time, I will be digging a little deeper into which remodeling projects bring the biggest return when you sell your house. If you have any questions in the meantime, it is alanjheavens@gmail.com.

Al Heavens is an expert in providing guidance to homeowners and Cipriani Remodeling Solutions is an expert in bringing those ideas to life. This blog is one in a series of articles to discuss the best ways for homeowners to approach a remodeling project.