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Spring not only brings flowers but home improvement projects.

As homeowners and renters tackle their wish list, those who aren't do-it-yourselfers will wonder how to find a reputable and dependable professional. It's a big decision.

"For a lot of us, our house is our largest investment," said Angie Hicks, co-founder and chief customer officer of Angi (formerly Angie's List), a home improvement website that connects consumers and professionals. "A lot of times, we're tackling things that we don't know a lot about."

So, it's important for consumers to do due diligence, "but I'm not sure they know how to do that most of the time," said Kaaren Grabianowski, executive director of Mankato-based Minnesota River Builders Association.

Here are 7 tips to help find the best pro for any project.

1 National, state and local associations

Trade organizations are great places to find pros, who must follow certain membership rules.

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) provides a "Find a Professional Remodeler" search function. Its Minnesota chapter (NARI-MN) does a background check (once for admission) on its 320 members, who also must follow a code of ethics, said executive director Beatrice Owen.

Similar regional and local groups also exist. The Minnesota River Builders Association, for example, lets consumers search its online directory of 120 members in the south central part of the state. Members must follow state and local building codes and its code of conduct, including being licensed, bonded, and insured, Grabianowski said.

2 Better Business Bureau

Consumers can phone the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Minnesota and North Dakota (651-699-1111) to ask questions about home improvement businesses or contract language, said spokeswoman Bao Vang.

They also can search its website for businesses by name or category. Results will show a BBB rating, a blue badge showing whether the business has been accredited by the BBB, and a button to request a quote.

A BBB accredited business must follow eight standards, including honest advertising, transparency and integrity, maintain a B rating and abide by a code of conduct. "Those are the businesses that BBB has vetted and approved to display the seal of accreditation," Vang explained. "We continuously investigate and evaluate these businesses."

3 Home improvement websites

When Rod Lindquist of Sartell needed some home improvement work, he turned to the internet like many people do. His search led him to Angi, which he had never used before, and he ended up hiring a Minneapolis handyman.

"I needed someone because I travel a lot," said the 71-year-old real estate developer. "I'm skeptical of those kinds of things … but this was really effortless and went really smoothly. I was totally satisfied with this guy and the cost."

Home improvement sites such as Angi, HomeAdvisor and Houzz let consumers search for professionals — from architects to plumbers — and allow contact through their websites.

For free on Angi, consumers can search its directory or answer questions to get matched with a certified professional. An annual fee of $29.99 provides a 20% discount on certain services. Listings displaying an "Angi Certified" badge must meet certain criteria, including licensing, a background check on the business owner, maintaining a 3-star rating, and following Angi's code of conduct.

"It's all about being fair and transparent and respectful," said Hicks. Those who don't follow Angi's code of conduct can be removed from the platform, she added.

4 Friends and family referrals

Experts advise reaching out to family and friends about their home improvement experiences.

"A lot of business is done via referral," Owen said. "If you know someone who had work done recently and is happy with it, ask who did it."

A decade ago, Suzy Ahrens and husband Steve Hine hired a friend of a friend to remodel the bathroom in a St. Paul rental duplex, where they now live. "It was a disaster," she said. "It cost us way more than the estimate. He just didn't do a very good job."

To avoid a repeat, Ahrens, 58, recently turned to a Facebook neighborhood group for a referral for some improvements, and was happy with the results.

5 Special certifications

Older adults seeking to age in place or add home features suitable for all ages and abilities, such as grab bars or wider doorways, can search for people with the designations of Universal Design Certified Professional (UDCP) from NARI or Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) from the National Association of Home Builders.

6 Awards

Look for professionals and businesses that have received awards for their work or customer service.

NARI presents contractor of the year awards in 44 categories. Consumers can view award online at the state and national levels.

On Angi, look for listings with an Angi Super Service Award for excellence.

7 Home tours

Local home design tours offer an opportunity to see completed renovations and who did the work.

NARI-MN's annual MSP Home Tour will take place April 27-28. "The homeowners typically are there, so you can ask questions about the contractors or remodelers," Owen said. "There's nothing like first-hand information from the homeowner."

Once you find a person or company you like, experts recommend taking these steps to protect yourself before signing a contract .

  • Verify licensing: Minnesota requires a license for home contractors, remodelers and certain tradespeople, such as electricians. Check a license on the state Department of Labor and Industry's website. Consumers also should ask whether the professional is insured and bonded, which provides protection for the homeowner.
  • Get three quotes. This lets you compare prices and styles. You also may want to meet a few pros to make sure you're comfortable with the person and the person understands what you want to accomplish in your home.
  • Check complaints: Home improvements are the No. 4 riskiest scam and the highest risk for people over 55, according to a recent BBB report. Search the free BBB Scam Tracker site for complaints or scams by business name, location or topic. Check enforcement actions on the state regulatory website or a contractor's legal history on the state court system's website.

Overall, "be wary of too-good-to-be-true deals," the BBB's Vang said.