NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — Should consumers have to pay a premium for honesty in a home remodeler? This seems to be the expectation.

Several years ago, I hired a general contractor to renovate my Philadelphia townhome. He was hired to do the bathroom and replace the ceilings and the front door. I found him via an Internet remodeler referral service.

He completed about 90% of the job then vanished into cyberspace. His phone was disconnected. Internet searches and contractor directories revealed nothing more than was already known.

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I know a young couple who replaced their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system in the spring, only to learn the following winter that the system did not work. The HVAC contractor - hired because of a neighbor's recommendation - was long gone.

"Unfortunately unscrupulous contractors are all too common," said Melissa Fritchey, public relations director for the Pennsylvania Home Builders Association. "We often find that they surface in numbers after a major storm or other natural disaster and take advantage of homeowners affected by weather-related circumstances."

"First, we always encourage consumers...to check to see if the contractor is registered through the [state's] Attorney General's office," she continued. "Although confirmation of registration does not guarantee quality of work, it does provide assurance that the contractor has a legitimate business, address and can be tracked down once the job is completed. The intention is to add another layer of protection for the consumer and to authorize criminal penalties for home improvement fraud."

She recommended taking these steps before hiring a contractor:

  • 1. Check the Attorney General's registry – consumers can also search to see if complaints have been filed through the Better Business Bureau.
  • 2. Insist on a complete and clearly written contract.
  • 3. Never pay cash up front.
  • 4. Always get references.
  • 5. Check with your local home builders' association for a list of reliable contractors.
  • 6. All professional home remodelers should be insured and able to display a certificate proving they have general liability and workers' comp insurance.

Fritchey said that after an inadequate professional experience, one should immediately report the contractor to the Better Business Bureau and to the Attorney General's office – whether unregistered or registered.

"The reason we strongly suggest using only registered contractors is because if there is a problem, it makes it easy for the AG to go after them," Fritchey said. "If they are unregistered, they may investigate. But if they can't find them, there isn't much they can do."

A similar response came from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) in Des Plaines, Ill.

"People will spend more time buying an electronic device than [vetting contractors for] their home," said David Pekel, a master certified remodeler who owns a remodeling business in Wisconsin and serves as president for the Milwaukee chapter of NARI. "Recourse after the fact is minimal or none. If the contractor cannot be found there is nothing one can do."