Upgrading your home can be an exciting project, whether it's one feature in a single room or a multi-room overhaul. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and jump right in with that contractor that your neighbor's brother's friend used for their home. However, home improvement projects are first and foremost an investment and like any investment, it's important to do your research and find the best option for you. Here's how you avoid the shady characters in home improvement.

Research and verify - Check the Better Business Bureau website to research any complaints filed against them and what the resolution was. You may also find information about their insurance agency, licenses and permits. Also search for reviews online to see what experiences others have had with them. This basic research and verification of their business practices and reputation can help you weed out many of the shady contractors in your area.

Get written estimates - Once you've narrowed it down to 3-5 potential contractors that look reputable, get estimates from them in writing. Make sure the estimates spell out the costs for materials, any necessary permits, labor and the timeline for the project.

Talk to their references - If possible, ask for references you can speak to. If you can visit and look at the quality of work, even better. Visiting may not always be feasible but any good contractor should be able to provide you with references who will talk to you by phone.

Check with your insurance agent - The agent who handles your homeowner's insurance can be an invaluable resource! Your agent has likely heard of or dealt with most of the contractors in town and can often give you the inside scoop on who they would recommend and who they would avoid.

Require a written contract - When you decide which contractor to proceed with, always get a written contract for the work. The important points to make sure are included are payment schedule, work schedule, details of what constitutes satisfactory completion of the work and any local ordinances or codes that must be met and/or must pass inspection before work is considered complete.

Require a copy of insurance certification - Require a copy of the contractor's up-to-date insurance certificate that demonstrates necessary coverage for the work to be done. Otherwise, you could be left footing the bill should an accident or injury happen on your property.

And one last point - NEVER pay the full cost in advance! While many contractors will need a portion of the money up front to purchase materials for your project, never pay the entire balance up front. Ever.

Before home improvement, doing a little bit of research and making sure to get everything in writing at every stage of the process help protect the investment you are making to upgrade your home. And a few conversations can help you make sure the contractor you are considering is the real deal.