Fixed Assets

Odd jobs: Demand for handymen has soared along with home values.

January 11, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Linda Cassity needed some window panes replaced, along with a few other odd jobs done around her Glenwood home.

She called a contractor who had been recommended by one of her friends. But he was too busy. She tried several other companies.

"Nobody called me back," she said.

It took her a while to realize that she needed a handyman.

Experts said homeowners may get their telephone calls returned sooner if they channel their requests to the right professional.

Handymen generally work on smaller projects that often take a few hours or days and cost less than $1,000, building experts said. Among the duties they perform are patching holes in walls, painting and fixing leaking pipes.

"We look for that two-hour or two-day type of work that the bigger contractors don't want to go after," said Rob Carpenter, owner of a Mr. Handyman franchise in Frederick and Howard counties.

A contractor is more likely to handle larger jobs such as adding a room or renovating a kitchen or bathroom.

Both professions have reported a deluge of business in the past three years as low interest rates and rising home values have prompted more people to invest in real estate.

Also, Tropical Storm Isabel in September caused many homeowners to hire workers to make repairs.

Experts said the demand for these services makes it even more important that consumers know whom to call for help around the house.

Existing working relationships are a good starting point, said Tom Shaner, executive director of the Maryland Improvement Contractors Association. He recommends that homeowners first contact a contractor they know, if possible. Sometimes, contractors will take on less lucrative jobs for current clients or put them in touch with subcontractors who also perform handyman work.

"I think of handyman work as short-term, more of a service work as opposed to a project," said Gary Stokes, president and co-owner of ADR Builders in Timonium.

Stokes' company does not solicit handyman work but will provide it as a service for current customers.

For the work she needed around the house, Cassity hired Mr. Handyman, one of several national chains formed to deal with the growing market. Carpenter opened his business in July and said his Mr. Handyman franchise is the third-fastest-growing of the chain's 102 nationwide.

"We do anything from clean your gutters, to drywall patching and painting, to anything homeowners need done around their houses," he said.

In Maryland, anyone who offers any kind of home improvement service is required by law to have a home improvement license, according to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. All licensed contractors or handymen are assigned a state license number, commonly displayed on company trucks and paperwork.

The license protects homeowners, allowing for state sanctions and added recourse should the contractor fail to adhere to standard business practices as required by Maryland law.

"The big key to look out for is that you hire competent [workers] who are licensed, bonded and insured in the state of Maryland," Carpenter said.

"You need to have a licensed [worker], but so many of the handymen are not," Shaner said. "The biggest frustration with it is that the legitimate ones for the small jobs tend to cost more than the unlicensed contractor, because it costs them more to come out and go through the process they are required to do - give an estimate, a proposal, a three-day wait-and-see."

There are more than 800,000 home improvement contractors or handymen nationwide, according to the National Association of Remodelers Inc., but many of them are unlicensed and inexperienced.

Lack of continuity is partly to blame, say industry experts, because licensing requirements vary by state. Pennsylvania, for example, does not require a license for home improvement contractors.

Hourly rates for handyman services often are higher than those for contractor work for bigger projects because the handyman's work is based on short-term labor. Contractors who agree to perform smaller services typically take that into consideration and alter their charges accordingly.

For handyman work, ADR charges about $58 an hour, plus markup on materials and subcontractors. On a larger contract, the company charges about $37.50 an hour.

"But it's a much bigger volume of work and with many more trades involved, and we're making a margin on those other trades and materials," Stokes said.

Franchises such as Mr. Handyman say hourly rates vary with location but typically range from $70 to $90 an hour, not including supplies.

Bill Ensor owns B.E.E.C.O. Inc. in Phoenix and is a board member of the Maryland contractors group. A structural engineer and licensed contractor, Ensor started B.E.E.C.O. in 1964 "to get enough business to buy tools to build my own house with," he said, laughing. "It turned out we kept getting called back, and it kept growing from there."

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