As the weather improves, homeowners start to tackle a major home improvement project: fixing or replacing their roof. Often this is a job that homeowners delay doing because it can be a pricey, tedious process.

"Some consumers are on top of it and start looking at new roofs well before the life span of their current roof runs out," says Steven James, VP Business Development for Eagle Ridge Construction & Roofing.

But that's not typical. Generally a problem such as a leak prompts homeowners to finally get around to checking out what's going on atop their home. Part of the reason homeowners procrastinate is because finding the right contractor for the job is a difficult process.

"Year after year, the Better Business Bureau consistently ranks roofing contractors as one of the top 20 most-complained-about businesses," says James.

In fact, in 2006, the latest statistics currently available reveal that the Better Business Bureau received 8,089 complaints against roofing contractors nationwide. "Out of 2,900 business categories, roofing contractors ranked 16th on the list of the most-complained-about businesses," says James.

But don't let that scare you into putting off your roofing job. Instead, use these helpful tips to select the best contractor for the job. At the top of the tip list, don't let price drive the deal.

Cheaper generally means compromise. "There's always going to be a lower price and usually the lower price reflects a shortcoming in the contractors insurance level because there are different insurance levels that they can have," says James. For instance, James says that general liability insurance isn't required by the state so some contractors don't carry it. That can pose a real risk to the homeowner because if something goes wrong, the homeowner can end up being liable for any damage during the course of the job.

He adds that "workers' compensation is required by the state by all contractors but some contractors use [Employee Leasing Plans] (which is kind of a way of getting around getting workers' comp insurance because the person who you lease the employees from is responsible for that), so you need to be cautious about the insurance that a contractor carries."

Compare apples to apples. "Generally a contractor will push a name-brand shingle," says James. But he says contractors may try to cut corners in other less obvious ways. James says that various less visible products that contractors use can be inferior, generic, or even second-hand materials. Make sure you compare apples to apples when deciding which contractor to use and be certain to inquire about all of the materials that are being used in your roofing project.

Find out how long a contractor has been in business. It's commonly known that most new businesses, regardless of the industry, fail within the first three to five years. "However, contractors and roofers generally fail at an even higher rate, so you have to consider that the warranty that you get from the contractor will only be as good as the contractors if they're still around. If they're not still around, obviously the warranty is worthless," explains James.

Use a certified expert. "Most of the name-brand shingles will certify contractors to install shingles according to their own specifications," says James. James adds that consumers should look for contractors who are certified by the shingle companies as "opposed to contractors who do use the name brand but are not necessarily certified by the manufacturer to install the shingle. An additional benefit to using certified contractors is that they are often able to offer extended warranties that are backed by the manufacturer.

Check your timing for your roofing project. Delays are common but a lot of people don't realize, especially during the winter months, that they're related to the weather. Any time you have even a chance of rain that means it's really risky to try to put a roof on and that's one thing consumers should be aware of," says James. He says often consumers see that it's currently sunny out and so they wonder why their roof isn't getting done. It could mean that the roofing company realizes that even a 20 percent chance of light showers could ruin the roofing project so the company is putting it off until better, safer weather conditions are predicted. "There are horror stories where there is a low chance of rain and so the roof is taken off and then the rain comes in and the house gets destroyed," says James.

Search for a contractor who is a member of industry trade associations. The National Roofing Contractors Association is one industry group that helps to educate and keep contractors informed about industry standards and changes. "The contractor receives unbiased product knowledge from the association as opposed to just receiving sales-type material from the manufacturer. So it's a second source of information about products and [it's coming from] a more neutral source," says James. The associations also provide ongoing safety training material for contractors as well as information to keep contractors informed about changing rules and regulations for construction.

Remember, what's atop your home protects all that's beneath it, so making sure you do your due diligence to hire the right contractor for the job can be the difference between a tedious or smoothly-run and completed roofing project.

By Phoebe Chongchua