Homeowners can reduce the risk that their contractor will abandon the home improvement job if they take some precautions before signing the agreement and paying any money, according to consumer officials. They suggest these five steps:

Check the contractor's references and the work he has under way on other job sites.

Determine if the contractor is bonded and licensed, in keeping with local requirements.

Find out how long the contractor has been in business here and if he has a permanent business address.

Avoid paying the contractor excessive amounts of money before work begins. Payment requirements vary from one job to the next, depending on the cost of the materials needed. But the general rule provides that the homeowner pay about one-third at the time the contract is signed, about one-third halfway through the job and the final third after all the work has been done to the homeowner's satisfaction.

Find out from local consumer agencies if there are any complaints against the contractor and if so, how they were resolved.

Here are the telephone numbers for local consumer offices: Alexandria, 750-6675; Arlington, 558-2142; Fairfax County, 691-3214; Montomgery County, 279-1776; Howard County, 992-2176; Prine George's County, 952-4700; Prince William County, 221-4156; and Washington, D.C., 727-1308.

Other information about contractors is available from the Baltimore offices of the Maryland Home Improvement Council, 301-659-6310, and the Maryland Attorney General's Office, 301-383-7461. In Virginia, consumers can call the state's Office of Consumer Affairs in Richmond at 804-786-3532 or the branch office in Fairfax at 573-1286.