Choosing a reliable contractor doesn't have to be difficult and time consuming. Here's what you should do:

1. Research - Find out about contractor license and insurance requirements in your state. For larger projects, check the status of a contractor's bond.

2. Anticipate - Before you call a contractor, know the model of your current system and its maintenance history. Also note any previous problems, which can help potential contractors better understand your unique heating/cooling needs.

3. Ask for referrals -Ask your network of friends, neighbors, and co-workers for contractor recommendations. You can also contact local trade organizations for names of members in your area.

4. Check out references - Ask contractors for customer references and make sure you call them. Ask about the contractor's installation or service performance, and if the job was completed on time and budget.

5. Look for special offers - A heating and cooling system can be a sizeable investment. Keep your costs down by checking for available rebates on energy-efficient ENERGY STAR qualified heating and cooling equipment. Begin your search at

6. Identify ENERGY STAR - These specially qualified products meet strict guidelines set by the U.S. EPA and offer significant long-term energy savings. Contractors should be able to show you calculations of savings for such equipment.

7. Request a home evaluation - Your contractor should thoroughly inspect your current system and home to assess your needs. A bigger system isn't necessarily better. A contractor should size your heating and cooling system based on the size of your domicile, level of insulation, windows, location, etc. A good contractor will inspect your duct system (if applicable) for air leaks and insulation and measure airflow to make sure it meets manufacturers' specifications.

8. Get written, itemized estimates - When evaluating contractors' proposals (bids), be sure to compare cost, energy efficiency and warranties. The lowest price may not be the best deal if it's not the most energy efficient short and long term.

9. Seal the deal on paper - Make sure you and the contractor sign a written proposal before any work gets started. It'll protect you by specifying model numbers, job schedule, warranty information, and most importantly, price.