Any good contractor will have no problem providing references, and copies of liability insurance before a job begins. Don’t rely solely on client testimonials, search out actual customers that can give you a firsthand account and answer any questions you may have. For any project, ask to see before and after images of a contractor’s prior work, and most importantly—trust your gut and know which questions to ask.
Some imitations just make sense: Lumber giant Weyerhaeuser sells a fast-growing natural eucalyptus hybrid under the brand name Lyptus. Sustainably harvested in plantations in Brazil, the clear-grained hardwood looks and feels remarkably like mahogany. It's sold as toungue-and-groove flooring and in planks and sheets for cabinetry and millwork. (Visit Lyptus.com to find a distributor near you.)
If your addition calls for clapboard siding, for instance, you can save more in the long run by ponying up now for the preprimed and prepainted variety. It costs an extra 10 to 20 cents per foot, but "you'll wind up paying for half as many paint jobs down the road," says Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of Byggmeister, a design-build remodeling firm in Newton, Massachusetts. The reason? Factory finishes are applied on dry wood under controlled conditions—no rain, no harsh sun. "I used prefinished claps on my house about ten years ago and the only flaw in the finish is the occasional mildew spot, easily washed off," Eldrenkamp says. "The paint looks as if it'll be good for another ten years, easily."