By Kristen Shelton
April 27, 2007

Both carpenters and contractors know the nuts and bolts, butthey perform very different tasks. A good carpenter can help incountless ways, from building a bookcase to raising a house frame,but don't confuse a carpenter with a general contractor.

A general contractor finds and supervises subcontractors, buildsyour house to meet code, and makes or breaks your timeline andbudget. In short, this is one powerful individual. So how do youfind the right one? No specific regulations govern the licensingand business practices of general contractors, so you'll have torely on word of mouth. Talk to friends who have recently built, orask experienced builders and architects for recommendations. Onceyou have some contenders, follow these rules to ensure a goodworking relationship.

Always check for insurance. According to U.S. News & World Report, a contractor needs at least $1million in general liability insurance. Accidents that happen onthe job (both to workers and to the surrounding property) can endup costing you if the contractor isn't properly insured.

Get at least three bids and three references. Ask forreferences from contractors' most recent clients, as well as photosof completed jobs. Check to make sure the lowest bid includes allof the work you have discussed.

Have a written contract. Include start date, date ofcompletion, all of the contractor's responsibilities, and any otherstipulations, such as asking him to work only on your job untilit's complete. Sample contracts can be found at the AssociatedGeneral Contractors of America's Web site,

Never pay in cash. Agree on a payment schedule in thecontract, and resist paying more than 10 percent down. Do not makea final payment until you are completely satisfied. If a contractordoesn't agree to this, you may need to work with anotherprofessional.