The adage, "A word to the wise is sufficient," should be remembered when you need to hire an electrician. Perhaps the key element in finding a reputable electrician is to look for licensed contractors.

As Bill Goodman, former president of the local Master Electricians and Electrical Contractors Association, says, "If you don't have a licensed electrician, Lord help you. Many times we'll get jobs where somebody's friend or brother-in-law will help, and then we'll be called in to straighten out the mess. It's hard to have much sympathy for people when they shouldn't have gotten involved with amateurs in the first place."

Finding a qualified contractor may be as simple as asking for references from friends or neighbors who have had work done. A local trade group also will make referrals. The Master Electricians and Electrical Contractors Association of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia will provide names of member contractors."

For residential or small commercial jobs, you will probably need a small contractor.

Most large contractors are not equipped to handle these jobs, which require sending a number of trucks and skilled mechanics to different sites. There are exceptions, and some research might turn up a big contractor who will take on small jobs.

If you have found a contractor but are not familiar with the firm's work, call the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau to see whether any complaints have been filed against the firm. You can also check with your local or state government's electrical inspector's office.

The Yellow Pages also is a source of many contractors' names. But although the telephone company makes an attempt to check out advertisers, it will provide no guarantees.

Don't be shy about asking for references. No reputable firm will be offended, and if a contractor is, perhaps you should look further. Be skeptical if you've gotten estimates that differ markedly. If a price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If your job requires a city or county permit, the electrical contractor will obtain it. Be suspicious of a contractor eager to skirt the rules and do an end-run around the electrical code on the grounds that it will save you money. Safety is at stake.

One of the best reasons for finding a reliable contractor is that electricians do not come cheaply.

Contractors usually charge according to a fixed contract or the time and material used.

Contractors often will use the time-and-material method when a job could become complicated or when there is no way to furnish an estimate because walls or flooring hide problems, Goodman says.

"On the time-and-material method, the contractor is gambling to an extent," he says.

"You might ask for time and material with a 'not to exceed' clause," he suggests. "That is not a bad deal, and at least you have a limit for figuring your budget."

He points out that contractors generally will tell the customer how the bill is to be figured; that is, which price book for material will be used, and the per-hour and permit costs. Mileage charges may be levied if the customer is a considerable distance from the contractor's site. This should be clearly stated in the contract.

Goodman recommends that if you're contracting for a large job -- a renovation or addition to your house -- that you ask the contractor for a certificate of insurance. This is an additional safeguard that could save headaches if anyone is injured on the job.

The average charge, depending on the area and type of work, ranges from $25 to $30 an hour. Most electrical contractors have a minimum charge for service calls, which probably will fall within the same price range. This applies to small jobs such as fixing a plug or hooking up an appliance, which do not require extensive wiring.

By hiring a licensed contractor, Goodman emphasizes, the consumer will have a "certain amount of protection."

Each jurisdiction in the metropolitan area requires electricians to be licensed. The state of Virginia has its own licensing procedures, and electricians working in places such as Alexandria and Fairfax City are required to get a permit in addition to the state license. Maryland has no state licensing system, but cities and counties have their own procedures for examining, bonding and licensing contractors. Electrical contractors are required to carry liability insurance in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. This covers anyone injured on the job and helps protect homeowners against lawsuits.

Reputable contractors also will arrange for required permits and set up inspections, which are conducted by local government officials to ensure that the work complies with local codes.

Since licensing is probably the most important element in government's certification of electricians, some jurisdictions require that contractors' vehicles carry their numbers; others do not.

"I wouldn't mind putting my license numbers of my trucks," says Goodman, "but I have 29, and there wouldn't be room for anything else." His trucks bear the message that he is licensed in the District, Maryland and Virginia.