If you’re like most folks, your home is probably your biggest investment.

And now that spring is here, many homeowners are ready to start their home improvement to-do list.

While most contractors are honest, there are plenty of con artists out there ready to take your money without doing any work. Others may do a substandard, unsafe or otherwise cruddy job.

Before you hire any professional help, do some research to make sure you don’t get scammed by someone who takes your money and runs.

Here are the five things you should do to find a reputable contractor.

1. Get some names

There are plenty of ways to find a contractor.

Start with word of mouth. Ask your friends, neighbors and family. The parents on your kid’s sports team.

Try social media, posting the question on your town’s local Facebook page. People are often happy to share their experiences.

Hearing from former customers will give you the most authentic recommendations.

But remember, this is only a start. (We were once recommended a tree removal company by dozens of people on our town Facebook page, but when we met the guy, he tried to enlist us in a little insurance fraud.)

If all else fails, get a few names from local flyers and ad-mailers that come to your mailbox.

Once you have a few names, it’s time to do some research.

2. Do your research

Check out the contractor’s reputation.

Start with the Division of Consumer Affairs to see if the contractor is in good standing with the state, which includes having a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) registration.

You can check that online or call (800) 242-5846. It’s important to note that the registrations may be listed by a business name or by the individual contractor’s name, so check for both.

If you’re not sure if the company is required to have an HIC registration, check out this brief by Consumer Affairs.

There are other kinds of workers, such as plumbers, electricians and other trade professionals, who need a license from the state. You can find that information here.

Even if you check online, you’ll also want to call Consumer Affairs to ask if there are any complaints against the company.

A word on those registrations: Contractors are not required to prove they have any skills to get a registration. They only need to prove they have liability insurance and pay a $110 fee, which doesn’t give much confidence for homeowners who want a professional who knows what they’re doing.

Earlier this month, the state got a step closer to requiring contractors to have an actual license, which would include training, an exam and other items that would raise the likelihood that the contractor can do the job and do it right. The bill was introduced in response to an NJ Advance Media investigation, “Hire at your own risk,” which spotlighted how poorly the current law protects consumers.

3. Do more research

Spend a few more minutes online to see what you can learn about the company and the individual contractor.

Start with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) online or call (609) 588-0808.

Remember that a company can still get an “A” rating even if it has dozens or hundreds of complaints. As long as it responds to BBB inquiries, whether the resolution is in the customer favor or not, it can get a high rating.

Next, do an internet search. Pop the contractor name and the company name into a web browser with the word “complaint” and see what comes up.

You can also check sites such as Angi, HomeAdvisor and Yelp!

Also search on NJ.com to see if a dispute was ever featured in a Bamboozled column.

If you want to take it a step further, don’t miss this Bamboozled column about how to search public records, including how to learn if a contractor or company has any judgments against them.

A note about reviews and so-called five-star ratings: When you look at online reviews and complaints, read the one-stars and the five-stars with a little suspicion. Fake reviews — good ones that could be from family members and bad ones that could be from competitors — are quite common, so instead, look at the reviews in between.

4. Learn about contracts

Before you call for estimates, familiarize yourself with state law and what’s required for home improvement contracts.

The law requires jobs worth more than $500 to have a contract. It must include the legal name and business address of the contractor, the start and end dates for the project, a description of the work and the total price.

Make sure the payment schedule is detailed and fair. Never pay for a job before it’s complete.

The contract must by law also have the business’ license or registration numbers.

The contractor must also give you a copy of their commercial liability insurance policy and phone number. Call to make sure the policy is in good standing.

Get all guarantees or warranties are in writing, and ask the contractor to spell out who is responsible for any permits. Double-check by asking your town ahead of time so you’ll know if a contractor tries to skip any steps.

Ask the contractor for a lien waiver, which absolves you of any responsibility to pay suppliers, subcontractors or other employees after you’ve paid the contractor.

Most importantly, understand your right of rescission. This is a three-business-day time period during which you can cancel a contract without penalty. Do it in writing and give it to the contractor in person, or better yet, send it by registered or certified mail, return receipt requested. Save a copy for your own records.

5. Get your estimates and choose

With your list of seemingly qualified contractors, call three for estimates.

Then you can take the three contract proposals and review them side-by-side, including the scope of the work, the guarantees and warranties, the materials suggested and the price.

Never sign a contract on the spot, even with that three-day rescission right. Don’t allow anyone to pressure you.

If they do, find another contractor.

When the work starts, keep tabs on the job and make sure the workers are sticking to the agreement.

Maintain notes that detail all conversations, dates and promises. If anything changes, don’t rely on anything verbal. Get it in writing.

Hopefully everything goes smoothly, but you should speak to the contractor about any concerns. If you’re not happy, you have the right to stop the work until any disputes are resolved. Don’t hesitate to contact your town inspectors if you need some backup or a second opinion on something that doesn’t seem right to you.

When it comes to paying the contractor, don’t use cash, Vemno or other money transfer apps. Use a check or a credit card to make it easier to track. Credit cards, generally, will give you the biggest protections.

And if the contractor ever asks for more money or asks you to pay before certain progress milestones — which should be specified in the contract — just say no.

Please subscribe now and support the local journalism YOU rely on and trust.

Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @KPMueller.