If you've ever built a house, put on an addition or gone through a major remodeling project, you'll empathize with my story.

The rest of you--I hope you learn from it.

A year and a half ago, I hired a designer-builder to redesign and remodel my 1950s-vintage house. My wife and I loved his plans. We looked forward to enjoying the new spaces April 1, 1998, when he assured us the work would be done.

That was more than a year ago, and no, he still isn't done. We've moved in, but the renovation is far from over.

I know what you're thinking. If something like that can happen to Lon Grossman, home-repair columnist, what chance do I have with these guys?

Well, you do have a chance to have your remodeling turn out well and on time, but only if you follow the advice I've doled out over the years.

First, check references and inspect--in person, yourself--the contractor's previous jobs. That I did.

Second, be absolutely sure to put a penalty clause into the contract, one that will cost your builder if the work isn't complete by the time you've agreed on. That part I didn't follow, and boy, has it been costing me.

Why didn't I follow my own advice? Ego. I was sure that he wouldn't fall through because he would want me as a reference.

In the first weeks, his work was great. He was on the site every day, checking the workmanship and following up on changes. He wanted the job to be right and was even throwing in extras. I was impressed.

But as time went on, he got involved in other jobs, some of which I referred to him, and he had labor problems, like every other contractor. My job got pushed back further and further. It got to the point that I'd see a workman around once in a while. Then the sequencing of the work got off.

For example, the painter, usually the last worker on a project, has come out at least a half dozen times to repair the damage other tradesmen have done to the walls that he has finished. Plumbers, electricians and flooring installers have all come at the wrong times. So the work barely moves forward.

Why did I write about this before the redness has drained from my face? Well, this is my 20th year at the Detroit Free Press. I've written my opinions on repairs, home safety, remodeling and more. I've written about the right way to go about home projects. My experience is what happens when I don't follow my own advice.

The advice below will help you avoid some mistakes, but only if you follow it.

Your first step in any remodeling--anything too complicated for you to tackle yourself--is to get names of several reputable contractors. Start with neighbors and friends.

Talk to wholesalers and others who supply material to contractors. They know who's good. They also know whether the contractor pays his bills on time. If you need an electrician, call a wholesale electric supplier; a plumber, a wholesale plumbing outlet.

Ask your real estate agent or home-insurance agent for a referral.

Look at newspaper ads. And if you still don't have enough names, get business cards off bulletin boards at neighborhood hardware or building supply stores.

Now, check out the contractors, using the Better Business Bureau and other private and governmental agencies that field complaints.

Once you've whittled your list down, call the contractors themselves. Ask: How long have you been in business? Which professional or trade organizations do you belong to? Then verify that with the organizations.

Do not fail to see a copy of the contractor's license, insurance certificate and bond. Check to see that they have not expired.

Check references. Don't assume that because he is willing to give you references, you don't need to take the next step. Be sure they're recent--he shouldn't have to go back three years to get three happy customers.

Inspect previous jobs the contractor has done and ask homeowners if they were happy, if he followed up on complaints and if he did what he promised to do.

Next to the contract you eventually sign, the bid is the paper most important to the success of your project. Be sure that you get at least three bids and that each contractor is bidding on the exact same project, with the exact same materials. If you change your mind about what you want done, sorry, you'll have to get new bids.

The bids should be free and they must be in writing.

If you find that one bid is a lot lower than the others, take a look at the allowance that's being figured for items such as flooring, plumbing fixtures, cabinets and so on. Do a little shopping on your own before you accept the bid. Can you get the plumbing fixtures you want for the amount you're being allotted? Or are you being low-balled, which means you might get inferior materials or a bigger bill later?

Now that you think you've found the contractor you want to work with, take the time to make sure the contract will protect your interests. Be prepared to walk away if you can't come to agreement here.

The contract should include:

* Job specifications.

* Detailed descriptions of the work to be done.

* Materials to be used, including brand name, color, size, amount and quality.

* Cost of the job upon completion.

* Payment schedule.

* Permits needed and who is responsible for getting them.

* Change-order clause (the contract should require that any changes to the work must be clarified in writing).

* Statement of appropriate and current insurance.

* License number of contractor.

* Any guarantee or warranty.

* Method of debris removal and who is responsible.

* Start and completion dates, with penalty clauses for being late and bonuses for finishing early.

* And, perhaps most important: Get a copy of each release of lien at the time you make your final payment. What's a release of lien? It's a receipt or form that a supplier or subcontractor gives your general contractor when all his bills have been paid.

It's important to have written proof because if you pay your contractor but he fails to pay any of his subs, they can in turn sue you and put a lien on your house--and you might find yourself having to pay the sub yourself to protect your stake in the house. In effect, you'll pay twice for the same work.

For Information

* "How to Find a Professional Remodeler," National Association of Home Builders/Remodelers Council, Attn: Paula Ward, 1201 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005; 1-800-368-5242, ext. 216, 8:30 a.m to 5 p.m. weekdays. Send a business-size, self-addressed stamped envelope to get one free brochure.

* "Building Permits: Why and How?," Building Officials and Code Administrators International, 4051 W. Flossmoor Rd., Country Club Hills, Ill. 60478; 708-799-2300 for ordering information via a fax-on-demand system. The brochure is available at 25 for $7.