Little jobs, big business

Upkeep: As demand for repairs soars along with the cost of homes, the handyman business is booming.

February 06, 2005|By Bob Erle | Bob Erle,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It used to be when homeowners had a leaky window or broken fence, they'd go to the garage, grab their tools and get to work.

But as homes become more and more complicated and people's lives busier, homeowners are increasingly turning to handymen for repairs.

Because of the surge in the remodeling industry and skyrocketing home prices that have owners looking to protect their biggest investment, the handyman field is becoming big business.

The independent handyman - the "Chuck in the truck" who carries his own tools, answers his own phone and schedules his own jobs - increasingly is competing with rivals who work for national chains, wear uniforms and are dispatched by an administrative staffs.

There's plenty at stake.

According to a recent study released by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, Americans spent nearly $127 billion on home improvements last year, 5.7 percent more than in 2003.

Walt Stoeppelwerth, whose Bethesda-based HomeTech Information Systems Inc. makes estimating software for remodelers, says the handyman field is a $70 billion-a-year industry.

"It's huge and continuing to grow," Stoeppelwerth said, with franchises making up a small but growing percentage of the home repair market. He estimates that there are 15 franchises, which generally charge more than independents do. Most have 50 to 100 locations.

Maryland home improvement officials say the growth in demand for handyman services has generated a rising number of complaints. They say homeowners should make sure that the handyman they choose, franchised or independent, is licensed.

Handyman franchises such as Mr. Handyman, Case Handyman, House Doctors and Handyman Connection appeared in the 1990s as demand for home repair services grew.

Shad Ewart, director of business programs at Anne Arundel Community College, said franchises usually start to take hold in an industry when the businesses are individually owned and operated.

"It is based more on the corporate recognition that there is a fragmented market and there is room for consolidation," Ewart said. "There are a lot of small businesses out there, and there is an opportunity to make one bigger one."

Franchise operators say they bring professional management to the delivery of handyman services, offering homeowners an easy and reliable way to find and schedule a technician. Independents say they offer personalized service and can charge less because they aren't paying franchise and advertising fees or making a payroll.

Rob Carpenter, owner of the Mr. Handyman franchise that serves Frederick and western Howard counties, said his company does practically everything under the roof.

"Cleaning out what's under the back deck, repairing the fence, hanging pictures, repairing rotted trim, cleaning gutters, painting, repairing a broken window. Just those nagging things that have been around the house," said Carpenter, whose company charges $80 to $90 an hour.

Business for many is booming.

`Overwhelming

"The demand at times is somewhat overwhelming," said Mark Richardson, president of Case Handyman Services, which has locations in more than 66 territories and serves Baltimore through its Cockeysville office.

Case Design/Remodeling Inc. of the greater Washington area launched a handyman division in 1992 and began franchising it in 1997. Richardson said the division has grown consistently since its inception and that the last three years have been "especially strong."

Richardson said homes have become more complicated, prompting homeowners to look for someone with expertise to get the job done.

"The house today requires a lot more maintenance and attention than houses built in the '40s, '50s, and '60s," he said. "The homeowner today says `I just don't want a simple house' and has driven the demand for maintenance and repair."

Jack Anderson, an independent who has run JM Anderson of Catonsville, for more than 20 years, said he doesn't need to be part of a franchise to fill his work schedule or offer good service. He depends on referrals and word-of-mouth.

"Business is very good and I don't see any signs of slowing down," said Anderson. As an independent, he said, he can charge less than franchises do. Anderson's rate is $61 an hour plus materials.

"They have to have their markup because they're paying the carpenter, and they have to make their profit," Anderson said of the franchises.

Some homeowners might be more at ease with a franchise because it's established, thinking "I've heard about them, they aren't fly-by-night, there is something behind this I can trust," Ewart said. What franchises are banking on, he said, "is that you're going to feel more comfortable with this franchise than going to Joe Schmo."

Other consumers, Ewart said, "might feel more comfortable with the guy down the block because they know he worked at the local machine shop."

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