Whatever your home or yard or garage or barn or boathouse needs—from a simple repaint to a full-bore remodel—you’ll probably need to hire a contractor. That can be a terrific, troubling or downright terrible experience—take my word for it. Here, for your protection, are ten essential tips for getting that all-important contractor relationship right:

1. Don't Start Without a Plan

Sit down and meditate a while on what you’d like to see once everything is finished. Try to picture it in your mind. Write down or draw a description. If it’s a complex task—and a full remodel is always complex—enlist the services of an architect to draw up the plans.

2. Find 3 contractors—From Referrals

Ask friends, neighbors, workmates or real estate agents which contractors they’ve used successfully. Check online resources—remodeling trade associations, the Better Business Bureau, web-based remodeling discussion groups—for their recommendations and warnings.

3. Get (At Least) 3 Bids

You may be tempted to go with the first one you receive, but stick with the plan and secure all three before you decide. Compare those bids—taking into account the quality of materials, the estimated timeframe and the completion dates. Once you’ve got those bids, check the contractors’ references, look at their previous work and visit a current jobsite, if you can.

4. Trust But Verify the Contractor’s License 

Just about every state and municipality has a website or toll-free telephone number that will allow you to verify licensure with the licensing board. Don’t skip this step! Last week in California 38 unlicensed contractors were arrested—can you imagine what will happen to the jobs they started but hadn’t yet finished?

5. Get it in Writing! 

Some contractors think of their estimate as a contract, but it isn’t—it’s only an estimate. A contract should spell out the work plan, the materials and a specific timeline for completion.

6. Agree on a Reasonable Payment Schedule

Don’t make large payments up front, don’t pay in cash, and don’t pay for work that hasn’t been completed.

7. Permits! 

Without fail, make sure that your contractor has pulled the correct and required construction permits. Skipping this step has resulted in many a contractor nightmare, one that’s easily avoided by checking that permits have been issued and are posted at the jobsite.

8. Visit the Job Regularly

Many people expect to see the job only at completion—but you should visit regularly and often, just to check and see how things are progressing. Take pictures to document the work. Contractors understand that interested clients often get better results.

9. Don’t Make That Final Payment Until It’s All Finished—and You’re Satisfied

Above all, don’t give the contractor the last amount due until you’re completely satisfied with everything that’s been done.

10. Finally, Keep All of the Paperwork 

Save receipts, estimates, the photos you’ve taken and the permits. A file like this, with before and after photos, will increase the value of your property, showing the next owner the exact nature of the work you’ve had done.

Good luck with your contractor adventure—and may you be blessed with excellent craftsmanship!