Hire a Handyman and Never Have to Say You're Sorry

Hiring a handyman is not easy and many people have had bad experiences with handymen. You've heard the stories… they don't show up, they don't return calls, they say they can do the work but end up letting you down… just a litany of negativity.

But wait a minute… there are scores of people who have had wonderful experiences hiring those "small job guys"! Just whose fault is it when communication breaks down… the handyman's or the client's? I would venture to say a little of both. Lets explore the relationship between handyman and homeowner and try to figure out how to make this situation a little better.

But first, let's try to figure out just what a handyman is… or isn't!

(Note:  If you are looking to hire a renovator or contractor for a BIG job, you might want to read our article on the topic, "ON HIRING HOME REPAIR HELP...", which deals more specifically with hiring contractors. Click HERE to view the full article!)

Is THAT a handyman?

The handyman profession is not easy to define. If I were to say that a handyman is a person who offers his home repairing talents for money, I would be right but not very helpful. If I tried to get myself out of trouble by listing the specific skills a handyman should have, I would be in more hot water! For every skill I would add to the list of required talents… electrical repairs, plumbing repairs, tile work, locksmithing, etc. … I would be eliminating hundreds of handymen. If I got more specific by listing job sizes she would accept… paint a wall, paint a house, paint the Sistine Chapel… again I would be lopping off more handymen with each increase in job scope.

What about letting the workers themselves define what a "handyman" is? That wouldn't work either. Many tradespeople call themselves "handymen" and "small-job pros" when they are, in fact, tradesmen looking for the big jobs but willing to take on a few small jobs when job pickin's are scarce. Is this honest? Maybe or maybe not, but they do have a right to work and survive! But are they really "handymen"?

What kind of work can a handyman do?

One thing that is certain… a "handyman" is not defined by his skills.

All handymen are not "Jacks (or Jills)-of-all trades". They come from all walks of life and all sorts of interesting backgrounds. Some handymen come from a trade background with primary skills in carpentry or the construction trades. A few are electricians and plumbers, though not as many since the money is usually better in those licensed and often unionized professions. Some are tile installers or roofers or appliance repair people who, as mentioned earlier, fill in the lean times with handy-work from their current customers or referrals.

But all handymen are not from the trades and not all handymen are skilled in crafts. Some are just honest hard-working folks willing to do a day's work for a day's pay. Some will ply their trade raking leaves, cleaning out your basement… anything for a buck! Others don't have many skills now but want to learn, becoming "freelance apprentices". They wish to become educated on-the-job and often charge relatively low rates for the opportunity to learn while working on your home.

What are a handyman's skills?

Here is the first truism about the handyman profession… a handyman's skills are defined by what that specific handyman can do! Since there is no standard handyman profile, each handyman brings to your home different abilities and capabilities. The handyman-roofer may do a great job cleaning gutters or replacing a door lock, but keep him away from the garbage disposal and the toilets. That great handyman/carpenter will professionally renovate your small basement but hide the broken bicycle and the garage door opener.

Great, NH! Now stop gabbing and get to the point!

Fine… here it is… my notion of what a handyman is and isn't by the numbers…

  1. A handyman is defined as a person that can do the job or jobs you need done around your home.
  2. A handyman is not capable of doing everything… pressuring a handyman to do work he is not comfortable with may lead to disappointment.
  3. Handymen come in all flavors, sexes, ages and sizes. Not just a male profession any more, handywomen are becoming more and more common. Though many think of handymen as retirees or part-timers supplementing their incomes, the fact is that thousands of people of all ages are professional handypeople who make their living through this work!
  4. So… there are professional and part-time handymen. A pro will most likely have wider experience and hence be a little more costly to hire. A part-time handyman will have a more narrow range of skills but may be more reasonably priced.

So now you understand how NH looks at handymen… a common-sense approach emphasizing the melding of YOUR needs to THEIR skills. Let's take this to the next step… the handyman selection process.

Hiring a handyman… the rules!

I really hope you didn't skip the first few paragraphs and jump to this section. If you did, please return to the top of the page… I'll wait for you. Everything in this section may not make sense if you don't understand my notion of a handyman.

Rule #1… Have a clear idea of what you want… and make a list!

With such a broad reaching profession, it is incumbent on the homeowner to ask the right questions of her handyman if she expects to hire intelligently. Before even considering calling, get together a list of the things you want done. In the craft we fondly call this the "laundry list" or the "honey-do list"… the latter named after the plaintiff cry of a needy spouse… "Honey, could you do this… honey, could you do that?"

Though there are many handymen with a tremendous range of skills you can't assume anything. It is important to go over the list with the handyman later in the screening process. Your goal is to decide if this person will do enough of your work to make hiring him worthwhile.

Rule #2… Develop a list of handymen prospects

The easy way to start your search is to pick up the local newspaper or "Pennysaver" and look through the home repair classifieds. However, the downside is that many successful handymen do not advertise. After a few years in business, many multi-skilled, full-time handymen find themselves overwhelmed with new business and stop actively promoting themselves. This occurs because of networking… referrals from multiple sources that keep them busy year round. So how do you find these handyman gems? Try soliciting the help of lumberyards, condo associations and hardware stores. Many of these businesses and organizations keep lists of tradesmen that they refer. Many are very careful who they list and will remove a tradesman if they receive any negative reports.

Needless to say, one of the best ways to start the search is to receive a trusted referral from a friend, relative or business associate. This type of referral makes the screening process a little easier since you have some information about the handyman before you talk to him on the phone… or have him standing at your threshold!

Rule #3… You must ask these questions!

If you have read the sister article to this piece… How To Successfully Hire A Contractor… you will find some redundancy here. My apologies for the repetition but overlap is unavoidable. However… there are a few additional essential questions specific to hiring a handyman.

  1. Request at least a few references… and then.. check them out!

    This isn't as important with a direct, trusted referral but it is vital if you pick your handyman out through advertisements in newspapers, mail or the Internet. Remember… you are inviting this person into your home.

  2. Ask direct questions about the handyman's experience and ability.

    How many years has she been in business? What are her favorite jobs? Brush the dust off your "honey-do" list you wrote earlier. Don't be shy… you have to know it this person can do the jobs you want her for. Even if this is a particular job you want done… say putting adjustable shelving in your garage… it is valuable to know if this handywoman has abilities in other crafts. Who knows… if you and the handywoman "bond" you may want her to do other jobs for you… either that day or A.S.A.P.!

  3. Find out about licenses and registration…

    Every state has different rules concerning licensing and registration for home repair contractors and all handymen are expected to follow them! Because "handywork" often crosses many crafts and the jobs can be quite small, laws that apply to builders and contractors may not apply to handymen in your locale. For example, some states require licensing for all contractors, some rules are based on the average size of the job, others are based on the contractor's annual income and some states require nothing at all! In some large metropolitan areas, the rules can vary literally from block to block! Some states defer to local governments. Are you getting dizzy? I am!!

    To determine the licensing requirements for your area, call your local building inspector or town hall.

  4. How does the handyman price his work? Does he give FREE estimates? Charge by the hour or half hour?

    This is another issue that may be at least partially regulated by the state or local government. Some states require written quotations for jobs over a certain dollar amount. This is to protect consumers from unscrupulous contractors who give a "ballpark" price and then hit a home run… with your wallet flying over the wall!

    For small jobs, many handymen charge by the hour… usually with a minimum charge. Make note of his hourly rates. When comparing handymen, realize that the hourly rate can be a reflection of his experience, how popular he is and his overhead costs. In my experience, though, there is often little connection between the hourly rate and the skill of the handyman. Frequently, pricing is based as much on what the market will bear and the competition's rates than some esoteric formula.

    It is a little scary to give "carte blanche' to anyone. If you have an upper limit regarding spending for the job or laundry list, let the handyman know up front. He should be able to help you understand what is required, what could go right and, more importantly, what could go wrong to drive the price beyond your budget. With this honest exchange of information, there will hopefully be no surprises for either of you!

  5. For many jobs, contractor liability insurance is NOT optional!

    Though the job size may be small, a little mistake can lead to a big disaster. Your handyman should have some sort of liability insurance coverage. It is not unreasonable to ask for some proof of insurance. Of course, your judgment applies… if you are just having someone rake your leaves or haul away trash, you might not desire to be a stickler on this point. This is, after all, a significant expense for the handyman and will be reflected in his overhead and, therefore, your cost!

  6. Credit references and bank references...

    Unless you want your handyman to take on a big job such a building a deck or a small renovation, credit and bank references are not really necessary. Many reputable handymen run a "cash" business and don't have established credit or loan histories relating to their business.

  7. Check for consumer complaints against the handyman...

    It is important that you call the local Better Business Bureau, the local Chamber of Commerce and the state licensing agency. But if you don't find any complaints, don't feel too cock-sure that you have found Mr. Perfect. Like many crimes that embarrass and shame people, making a poor choice in handymen and contractors is an oft silent crime. I have worked for hundreds of homeowners repairing the mistakes or the omissions of other contractors, yet when I ask if they filed a complaint, most of them have not. Some sadly and actually thought that talking to an attorney was filing a complaint! In some cases, these homeowners are just weary after months of contractor promises and disappointments. In the end, most just accept their dismal fate, hire other people to correct the mistakes, and silently let the errant contractor move onto the next sucker.

    Now… to be fair to the contractors, many complaints filed by consumers are not really serious but instead either misunderstandings or "power plays". A customer may complain because the cost of a job increased after the customer himself made a midstream change in the plans. Another customer may decide to change the location of a window after it was already installed, expecting the contractor to absorb the additional labor costs. Some consumer complaints are out and out frauds... attempts to delay payment or get cost concessions from the contractor. So we must view the complaints in a complete light and appreciate the circumstances... they do not necessarily indicate an unreliable contractor.

A final note… from the Natural Handyman

Being in the home repair field gives me a perspective that "outsiders" writing on this subject lack. I proudly admit to NOT being dispassionate. Every week I hear and see both the light and the dark side of the home repair industry. I strongly support my brothers and sisters who try to eke an honest living in a profession that has not received glowing reviews in any media. In the news, there is very little ever mentioned about the qualified home repair professional… only the tales of woe seem to be newsworthy. I certainly do not expect the handyman business to receive more consideration than any other beleaguered profession… such as medicine, law or politics. I am a big boy and I realize that… well… that things going "right" is not  newsworthy.

So I close this article with a salute to all the fine folks who work every day to make your homes work better, last longer and keep you safe. And likewise a salute to the homeowners who have accepted us into their homes and made us a part of their lives. Thank you all!