If the foundation of your research isn’t as strong as the one under your house when you’re looking for a home contractor, you could be opening yourself up to a swindle.

For the most part, home contractors are honest folks who take pride in making your home a better place for you to live. But lots of the “pros” out there are scammers who can see you coming from a mile away. When they part with your money after a job poorly done, if done at all, it can be difficult or even impossible to get that cash back. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you discern the hardworking handyperson from the hardware-toting huckster.

There are lots of ways to do your homework before you do work on your home. To start, you’re responsible for obtaining the building permit, but if your contractor says you don’t need one, it’s time to find a new contractor, says Gemma Broderick, executive director for the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto.

“Generally, if someone’s going to have work done on their home, it should be the homeowner initiating the research into who they’re going to get to do the work rather than vice versa,” adds Det. Rick Penstone of the Toronto Police Service’s Fraud Squad.

Demand references: Good contractors who stand on their record won’t think it’s too forward of you. Note that you’ll probably never get a bad reference out of a contractor, but if the person to whom they refer you doesn’t sound entirely satisfied with their work, alarm bells should ring.

Check for a specialized licence, which some trades require (such as plumbers and electricians). You can also conduct a search through the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against the contractor or the company. You should also check if your municipal or provincial government keeps business grievances on file: Ontario’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services has a database on who has been engaging in unfair business practices, for example.

Also beware of the get-rich-quick types. Contractors can often give you outrageous estimates for relatively easy work. Penstone and Broderick both advise you to get several estimates in writing (at least three different ones for the same job), and never trust a contractor who quotes flat rates before even inspecting your home.

Avoid the cash “deal.” It can often lead to out-of-the-blue charges that end up costing you more. The contract is the best record you’ll have should something go wrong. To begin with, it should have basic contact and GST information, a detailed breakdown of materials and labour costs, and a clear start and completion date. Final costs may match the estimate plus 10 per cent; anything more than that is illegal. When you sign, you may be asked for some money upfront: Anything over 20 per cent of the total cost of the contract is usually considered unreasonable.

“Keep deposits or down payments to a minimum and never pay the full amount until all the work has been completed,” says Broderick. “You may want to get a lawyer to examine the contract — especially if a large sum of money is involved.”

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