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Q. I have decided to do some major remodeling in my home that will require a professional. I need help: I don't know where to begin.

A: Our advice can be summed up in three words: Plan, plan, plan! The key to most successful remodeling projects is thorough planning.The first step is to clearly define your ideas by preparing a detailed needs list. Be as specific as possible about the materials, finishes and products to be used. The next step is to agree on a budget that's affordable yet realistic based on the work you want to do.

Once you have established needs and budget, then look for some design expertise by an architect, designer or contractor/designer. Many general contractors have in-house design services.

Then you should put out bids on the completed design to at least three reputable general contractors. Make sure these contractors are licensed and have all the proper insurance coverage required.

The cheapest price may not give you the best value. A real professional will be eager for you to visit previous jobs to see his work and talk to his "satisfied" customers. You should also get in touch with the Contractors State License Board and the Better Business Bureau to find out whether any complaints have been filed against the contractor. Both organizations also have helpful and highly informative pamphlets free of charge.

When it comes to the contract, make sure everything is in writing. Leave nothing to chance. If it's not in writing chances are you won't get it.

Finally, before making the final payment, make sure the contractor gives you releases of lien for all labor and material provided for the job.