Q: I am a fairly experienced do-it-yourselfer, but I am considering a large project and don't quite know where to begin in hiring a contractor, or subcontractors I can supervise. I want to get the most for my money and still have quality work performed. I have heard a number of horror stories from friends and associates connected with building projects and would like to avoid the pitfalls. Do you have a list of guidelines for hiring professionals in construction?

A: Getting involved in major construction or remodeling can seem overwhelming to most people. Finding a reliable contractor who can complete the project on time, at a reasonable cost, and deliver the results that you expect is a challenge. Consumer protection groups report that each year they get more complaints about contractors than anything else. Tales of scams, overcharges and shoddy or incomplete work abound. But this needn't be the story. There are plenty of qualified, reliable contractors out there, and it's worth the effort to find the one who's best for your project. Self-protection starts with good planning.

If the project is a major remodeling at considerable expense, it is often wise to hire a qualified architect to help in the planning. Many architects will also help you select a qualified contractor. When selecting either an architect or a contractor, get references from previous customers and inspect recent jobs they have completed.

A number of cities and states have consumer protection agencies that offer free literature containing guidelines on the selection and hiring of contractors. Check to see whether such literature is available in your area, because local laws, codes and permit requirements will often be included.

Here is a typical list of guidelines designed to protect consumers:

* Have a precise plan--know exactly what you want done. If you have in mind more than one project, make a complete list with specifics.

* Get at least three written estimates, each of which should be based on the same building specifications and materials.

* Get references from contractors and inspect jobs they have completed.

* Before starting, check with the consumer protection agency in your area to see whether the contractors under consideration are licensed, bonded and insured and whether there are complaints about them on file.

* Get a written, detailed contract. Changes to the contract should be in writing and signed.

* Limit your deposit, other than payments for materials, to 15 percent of the total or $1,500, whichever is less.

* The contract should include a full description of work to be done, a one-year workmanship warranty and specific start and completion dates. Payment installments during construction should not exceed the cost of time and materials on work completed.

* Make sure your contractor gets all necessary building permits, unless otherwise stated in the contract.

* Protect yourself from liens, in the event your contractor fails to pay a subcontractor or materials suppliers, by adding a release-of-lien clause to the contract. Or arrange to pay subcontractors and suppliers directly.

* Thoroughly inspect work before making final payment or signing a completion certificate. Never pay cash to a contractor; use checks or money orders.

* Beware of scams involving discounts in exchange for cash deposits, bargains on leftover materials, rebates for using your house as a model, and trades for products or services.

For more information on how to hire a contractor, how to finance your project and details on what is involved on specific projects--materials, workmanship, pitfalls--consider purchasing the book "How to Hire a Home Improvement Contractor Without Getting Chiseled," by Tom Philbin (St. Martin's Press; $17.95). Another excellent reference book, which is out of print but possibly available at a local library, is "How to Hire the Right Contractor," by Paul Bianchina and the Editors of Consumer Reports Books (The Homeowner's Library).

Q: I am considering a concrete-slab addition, which will function as a patio and outdoor eating area. I don't want the standard dull gray finish. I have seen some information on colorized and textured concrete in brochures, but they didn't include enough detail. Do you have any information on concrete treatments that might be suitable?

A: The Portland Cement Association offers a series of informative books and videos on concrete construction. Included in this series is "Finishing Concrete Slabs With Color and Texture," a 40-page book.

The book describes how to create decorative surfaces on cast-in-place concrete slabs including: exposed-aggregate finishes; textured finishes; stamped impressions; colored finishes, including integral colors, dry shakes and stains; proper jointing and curing practices; and combinations of color and texture to create attractive surfaces.

To order this book, or obtain a free catalogue listing other informational materials, write to the Portland Cement Association, P.O. Box 726, Skokie, Ill. 60076-0726; or call 1-800-868-6733.

Send e-mail to copleysd@copleynews.com or write to Here's How, Copley News Service, P.O. Box 120190, San Diego, Calif. 92112-0190. Only questions of general interest can be answered in the column.