How to find the right contractor to get your home repair or home improvement job done most effectively.
The standard advice on this point is "Get at least three estimates. Check at least three references for each estimate." This is fine advice if (a) you've already decided that you will only enter into a fixed-fee contract and (b) you know of at least three somewhat reputable contractors qualified to do the type of work you have in mind.
There's at least one different approach that may get you to a well-qualified contractor more quickly, less formally and with less hassle on everyone's part - using your network. You can ask your neighbors, friends and acquaintances if they know of someone who is good at, say, tile work. If you're at a party and you notice that the kitchen looks newly remodeled, you can ask if your hosts had the work done and, if so, would they please tell you how to get in touch with the folks who did it. This is known in the business as "word of mouth advertising," and almost every contractor who has been working more than a year or two will tell you that this is the most important source of new leads for them, bar none.
If you have just arrived in a new area and haven't yet made enough contacts to be able to get meaningful feedback, try asking three or so insurance agents - brokers, that is, not just salespeople - who they use. The contractors employed by insurers are usually neither the most nor least expensive, and they're often also both reasonable and flexible about specifications and scheduling - it's in the nature of their work.
You now have a list of contractors to call and, in addition, you have pre-screened them. You got their names from folks for whom they have already done satisfactory work, which means you have already checked their references. And they didn't give you the references, you found them on your own.