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August 02, 1996|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Planning a home improvement project this summer, but haven't a clue about how to get started? A Southern California contractor referral service has published a 12-page booklet that covers many of the basics, including tips on getting organized, determining when to hire an architect, finding and checking out prospective builders' qualifications and important items to include in a building contract.

"Tips and Traps: A Guide to Problem-Free Home Improvement Projects" isn't beautifully written nor is it particularly attractive. But it includes lots of valuable information. For example, it explains what happens if a worker is injured at your house and the contractor doesn't have workers' compensation insurance; namely, you or your homeowners insurer will be on the hook for medical bills and rehabilitation costs.

How do you make sure the contractor is insured? You ask that a "certificate of workers' compensation insurance" be sent to you directly from the insurer, according to the booklet. It's wise to make the same request when checking whether the contractor has general liability insurance. Why can't the contractor simply supply you with a copy of his certificate of insurance? That doesn't ensure that the policy is current, according to the contractor referral service.

This booklet used to cost $5 a copy, but is now being given away free as a promotion for the contractor referral service. You can get a copy by calling (800) 266-8722.

* Check out credit card rate survey.

Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based consumer group, recently completed its 1996 credit card survey, compiling information on 73 bank cards. The group's four-page report includes a listing of the cards, rates, issuers and their toll-free phone numbers. Consumers can get a free copy by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: CA Credit Card Survey, 116 New Montgomery St., Suite 233, San Francisco, CA 94105.

* Look into phone awards.

AT&T Corp., which like Pacific Bell gives points for phone use, revamped its awards program last month and now allows customers to give their unused points to charity--or trade them in for savings bonds.

How much are your points worth in contributions or bonds? The minimum donation of 250 points is the equivalent of a $5 donation; 1,000 points is equivalent to a $20 donation. (Only four charities--Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Heart Assn., the World Wildlife Fund and Ronald McDonald House Charities--are currently able to receive point-based gifts.)

Savings bonds, which are zero-coupon bonds that sell for half their face value, have a similar redemption schedule. A $50 bond (which sells for $25) can be obtained for 1,250 points; it takes 2,500 points to get a $100 bond.

The program was revised partly to accommodate customers who had accumulated points before another AT&T awards program revision in March. Before March, anyone with more than $5 in long-distance charges could accumulate award points; after that, $50 in charges was needed to get points. Consequently, many customers were left with too few points to buy anything and little chance of gaining more points under the new rules.

Whatever happened with Pacific Bell's program? The program, which had to be taken back to the drawing board because of a suit brought by long-distance carriers including AT&T, will only award points for long-distance usage when consumers send Pacific Bell their long-distance bills, according to Elizabeth Gradinger, president and general manager of Pacific Bell Extras. (Long-distance carriers previously sued to stop Pacific Bell from awarding points based on long-distance phone usage, saying that PacBell was invading customers' privacy by looking at these bills--even when their customers authorized them to peek. And a judge ruled in the long-distance companies' favor.)

Doesn't Pacific Bell now send you this bill, along with the bill for local service? Yep. But if you want the points, you've got to send it back so that they're legally able to look at it.

Pacific Bell also opted to give all participants a 5,000-point bonus for signing up and will give more points than originally promised for each dollar spent for customers who have at least $25 in local calls each month, Gradinger said. Letters explaining the changes are going out shortly. In the meantime, Pacific Bell is appealing the court decision in the AT&T case that prompted the program changes.

Consumer Checklist is a weekly feature that covers a range of pocketbook issues of interest to Californians. To contribute information about new legislation, products, services or surveys, write to Kathy M. Kristof, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; or e-mail

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