Like many homeowners in his Oyster Road neighborhood, Steven K. Stearns hadn't experienced flooding before Hurricane Sandy.

His home had a finished basement, what Stearns described as a "perfect man cave." But when Sandy came through late last month, parts of Fairfield that hadn't flooded in decades were inundated with water from Long Island Sound, and homes in Stearns' neighborhood were among them.

"I've lived on Oyster Road for 20 years. Neighbors who got there 20 years before I did never flooded. Why not finish the basement?" Stearns said. But Sandy, he said, flooded his basement with four to five feet of water and dealing with the aftermath was a challenge, though he added that his family was lucky in comparison to some homeowners on Fairfield Beach were left only with a vacant lot.

Stearns was one of about two dozen residents who came to a forum Friday afternoon in Fairfield Public Library designed to help residents navigate the process of hiring contractors, filing insurance claims and applying for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Speakers at the forum, sponsored by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, were Lucas Papageorge Jr. from General Contractors, LLC on Berkeley Road and Matthew J. McDonald, an associate agent at Boccarossa Insurance LLC, which has an office on the Post Road.

"It's a complicated process and there are a lot of moving parts, and I haven't seen one document that answers all the questions I have and shows you how to walk through the process," Stearns said.

McDonald agreed. "The first time walking through this is not fun," he said.

Papageorge said residents need to be sure they hire reputable contractors and don't pay for work that hasn't been inspected. He said contractors should be registered in the state and have liability insurance and worker's compensation insurance (if the contractor has any helpers.) He said residents also should check with the Better Business Bureau to see if the contractor has any complaints filed against him, though he noted that a contractor who just started his business would have an A+ rating with the BBB.

Finding contractors nowadays may be a challenge, Papageorge said. He said he has 35 quotes on his desk and won't be able to visit the next property at which he's going to provide a quote until after Thanksgiving. But Papageorge said Angie's List and ServiceMagic are good websites from which to find contractors.

Quotes provided by contractors should be detailed, Papageorge said. "Make sure everything's included. If it's not in the paperwork, it's not part of the deal," he said.

He said residents should next have a legal contract for the work that includes the contractor's license number, a clear description of work to be performed, start and completion dates and a payment schedule. The payment schedule should be based on completion of parts of the job and those parts should be inspected before payment, Papageorge said.

"A handshake deal in Connecticut isn't worth anything," he said. "Don't pay an invoice until you can get someone in there who's knowledgeable who can say, `This is done.' "

Papageorge said a deposit for a job shouldn't be more than 1 to 2 percent of the total cost and that residents ought to leave 1 percent to 2 percent for "punch list" items to ensure the contractor will come back to take care of miscellaneous outstanding work. Veteran contractors usually give a minimum one-year warranty on their work, though Connecticut doesn't mandate a warranty, Papageorge said.

Residents should never have to pull a permit for the work. "The contractor should always pull the building permit. If the contractor tells you to, that may mean he's not licensed or does not have the necessary insurance," Papageorge said.

Residents who have mortgages on their homes have a built-in safety feature when it comes to paying contractors because the bank that holds the mortgage won't release payment from an insurance check until an inspection of the work is done, Papageorge said.

Several residents at the forum said their basements had flooded and they were worried about contamination from the sea water and the potential for mold growth. Papageorge advised that basements be power washed and that a chemical known as ShockWave be applied to prevent mold growth.

McDonald said remediation for mold should be covered under a flood insurance policy, but Papageorge noted that if the mold was the result of a tree falling on a house and rain it would be covered under the homeowner's general insurance policy.

McDonald said homeowners could check contractors' quotes against an insurance adjustor's proof of loss form, adding that costs on that form are indexed to the zip code of where repairs will be done. He said it's best for a homeowner to point out to the insurance adjustor everything that was damaged.

McDonald said a contractor could go through the proof of loss form with the homeowner and could write a letter to the insurance company if the difference between amounts on the form and his estimate are significant. "You can submit a supplemental claim with documentation saying this claim needs to be reopened," he said. "The insurance company is designed to put you back in the situation you were in."

Papageorge, though, said, "If you have an expensive contractor, they won't pay for an expensive contractor. They pay the going rate."

McDonald said residents could register for disaster relief through FEMA if damage was not covered by their flood insurance policy, and several at the forum said they already had. Disaster relief through FEMA was capped at $31,900 per individual, Papageorge said.

Residents whose homes have repair estimates that exceed 50 percent of the home's appraised value will have to comply with current Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations. Lucas didn't advise that owners elevate their homes if repair costs are less than 50 percent because he doesn't think they'd get that money back when they sell the property.