Election Section

About the House: Getting To Know Your Handyman By MATT CANTOR

Friday December 23, 2005

To the seasoned homeowner, few associations are as valued as those they share with their handyman (or handywoman). Finding these gems and keeping them around is no mean feat but worth every calorie you can muster. But it’s also important to understand some basic concepts about the care and feeding of handypersons. 

First and most important is to understand that a handyperson is not a general contractor. This is a person who can probably do a number of basic repairs without complex issues attached and should not be asked to do more than this despite the temptation to get your foundation replaced for half the cost. There are reasons that general contractors and other specialists charge what they do for many complex services and trying to circumvent this process can bring tears faster than the IRS (and that’s fast). 

Some of the jobs you might attempt with your handyperson include light plumbing (probably not re-piping your house but certainly replacing the washers in a faucet and maybe even the faucet itself), simple electrical jobs such as changing light fixtures and indoor painting where prep is minimal or not needed at all.  

Your handyperson should probably not be doing anything that would normally require a permit. This is hard to encapsulate into our short space but most cities limit this in dollar amount and a good rule of thumb is work that’s under $1,000. I tend not to want to see a handyman inside of an electrical panel but might allow for repair or addition of one circuit if they have good knowledge of this specialty. In general, things that pose a real threat, like electrical work and heating equipment, are best left to experts. 

There are, however, loads of tasks around the average house that handypeople are well suited for, but try and keep it simple. Here are a few:  

Caulking inside or out (make sure they buy the right caulk; there are differences and store employees can help); changing furnace filters; setting traps for pests; putting together shelving units and furniture; cleaning windows (lots of house cleaners don’t want to get on ladders); or fixing stuck windows and doors.  

Handypeople may also be suitable to lay insulation batting in your attic. Have your handyperson vacuum out your floor furnace (they can probably re-light the pilot if it goes out, too). Handypeople tend to be good at mechanical tasks like replacing locks or adjusting hinges. If your door rubs or the lock won’t engage, your handyguy or gal is likely well versed in such matters. You may also want your handyperson to do something so mundane as changing a light bulb that’s higher than your ladder (or your acrophobia) reaches. 

For larger or complex jobs, please consult a general contractor or a specialist such as an electrician or heating specialist. You also might find that a specialist who charges a whopping $100 an hour is going to be cheaper in the end than a handyperson who charges $30 an hour, due to their expertise and equipment. Sometimes cheap isn’t cheap. 

Since handypeople are often less experienced and savvy than their general contractor counterparts, there are a few things you should keep in mind. One is that these useful folk are often not too experienced in business affairs and may not lay out the timeline and cost projections with PowerPoint presentation. Some scribble hours down on napkins, although some have computers and receipt books.  

Take some time to talk about how things will work and expect your first date with your handywonk to be a learning experience. Keep it short and simple, sort of a test run, and then get the bill, pay it and leave it open-ended. If things were to your liking, call back and do another few items.  

Some handypeople are less than reliable or competent and it’s best to stay involved and find out early. Others are fantastic and may even be so good that they’re booked up for weeks in advance.  

It’s always better to wait for the one that is in demand. The restaurant with the long waiting line is probably better than the empty one.  

Remember that cost is a relative thing, as I’ve previously indicated, and a handyperson who charges $45 an hour might be a great deal while one that charges $20 might be a terrible deal. For your first date with your new handyperson, don’t fixate on price but see what the total bill looks like and how much you liked the work. Remember that showing up on time, keeping the place neat and being pleasant are all part of the equation. An irascible and perennially tardy worker is a pain and worth less than one that does the same job in a timely manner and with a smile. 

Some other issues regarding said handyperson might fall under the realm of personal liability. Since there is no licensing board to complain to and no bond to claim when things go wrong, you are more afloat with a handyperson. Check with your homeowner’s insurance company and see what they cover in the event that he or she gets hurt on the job or does something harmful to your property or possessions that they will not be able to cover. Talk to your accountant and see what the payment limits are for day labor or small repair and find out how it will be best to pay. How you pay may also affect your ability to seek recourse for problems you later discover. There are advantages on both sides of this issue so get some advise that considers your own circumstances.  

Lastly, have some fun and enjoy the fruits of this wonderful resource. I can drain the fun out of any subject with all the liabilities and inherent difficulties, but I don’t want you to miss the point that handypeople are a very practical commodity. In fact, sometimes they are so perfectly suited to your needs that it’s a wonder that you can book time with any of the good ones to save your life. 

Who’s my handyman? I’ll never tell.