Over the 15-plus years that I have been privileged to write this legal column, and the 25 years I hosted a legal call-in radio show, one of the most persistent problems I’ve heard about from the public involves home-construction and home-repair contracts. A contractor has not done what he has agreed to do, and inevitably the contractor is ahead on the money side of the equation—he has been paid before he is through.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to learn about any contractor you consider hiring before he is hired. Many referral companies now tout the contractors on their vetted list, which is a start. Find out who the satisfied customers are, and call a couple of them, especially if you know the recommender personally. If you are dealing with any other local contractor, ask them for references, and be sure you contact the references and ask those questions about the quality of the materials used, the timeliness of service, the competitiveness of the charges and the quality and timeliness of the inevitable follow-up for needed tweaks. Call the Better Business Bureau (the Better Business Bureau of Northwest North Carolina can be reached at 336-725-8348) to check on your contractor, although not everyone who has a complaint registers them with BBB. Another good resource is a Help Line Directory published by Senior Services Inc. (336-724-2040; helpline@seniorservicesinc.org.)

Here is a rule to commit to memory: The most important component of a home construction or home repair contract is the reputation and quality of the provider. All the legal remedies the law provides will not trump the fundamental credibility and experience of the provider. If the provider is an empty bucket in terms of their ability to fix or pay for a botched job, you have not accomplished much.

The best legal problem most people have is the one that never happens. You may end up paying a little more for this credibility and reliability, but it is generally more than worth it.

In a common scenario, the provider says he needs a healthy advance for supplies to get started. The citizen pays the advance, and that is sometimes the last time the provider is seen. Or if the provider does come back, it is only after multiple calls and more.

Unless you are dealing with a well-known provider, and hopefully one with whom you have dealt before, it makes sense to have the provider get started and providing value before you pay the provider a portion of the overall charge. And try to stay ahead on this service and product before payment equation. You want the provider to come back and finish the job, and in a timely fashion. Providers who are owed a good portion of their fee will be back, and in a timely fashion, likely.

There should be a written contract if there are more than a few thousand dollars involved. But either way, the main terms of the contract should be clear: When do you start, when will you be done, when do you receive payment, and what do add-ons and modifications cost?

If you are building a new house or making a significant addition, you probably should have a lawyer review the contract. If you do not know a lawyer, ask an experienced real-estate agent you know for a recommendation.

There are few encounters citizens have with more potential legal problems than home construction and service contracts. Do your homework, and take your time to get it right. When in doubt, talk to your lawyer, or use the N.C. Bar Association’s lawyer referral service to get a 30-minute conference with an experienced lawyer for no more than $50 (800-662-7660).

Remember: An informed choice is a smart choice.

This article was originally posted by the Winston-Salem Journal. To read the original article, click here.