Fall Real Estate 2002

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Who're you going to call?
When the small jobs pile up, it's tough to find a handyperson

by Anne Becker

You know those pesky home repairs you have building up? The ones that require just a little too much technical expertise to handle on your own? You put them off, but they pile up because you're reluctant to hire an outside service, much less one whose credentials and employees you don't know or trust.

Gary Ahlberg works on odd jobs in a Palo Alto home for Handyman Connection.

Homeowners, particularly new ones, are constantly stymied by where to turn for the minor repairs their houses require, according to Rich Hill, who for six years has owned the North Santa Clara County and San Mateo County branch of Handyman Connection, a national franchise that employs mostly retired craftsmen.

"We get a lot of bewildered phone calls from people who don't know what to do," Hill said. "There's a certain amount of fear that a homeowner has when they look in the newspaper and say 'I need someone to re-grout my bathroom, now who should I call?'"

Handyman Connection, one of a number of area services available for smaller home repairs typically classified as "handyman work," was founded 14 years ago as a reaction to homeowner uncertainty about repairs, according to Hill.

"The founders were two retired businessmen and one became the volunteer maintenance manager for outside the building (of his condo)," Hill said. "But he kept getting asked by the residents who could put up a ceiling fan and stuff like that. He had the idea that homeowners often do not know who to call for the smaller jobs. He started talking to craftsmen who didn't know how to keep their plate full and put the two concepts together and found retired guys to open a business."

The nationwide franchise now offers services in electrical, plumbing, tile, painting and general contracting for jobs that require anywhere from an hour to a couple of weeks to complete. It specializes in smaller jobs that larger contractors might not offer, like helping an elderly woman put up a towel rack or performing a small bathroom remodel, and tries to match skills of the handyman with the homeowner's needs. The service sends one person per job, charges by the labor performed, and gives a written proposal for work to be done, rather than an estimate. Homeowners supply and pay for materials, Hill said.

When deciding to hire a handyman service, Hill said, customers are often frazzled and concerned about workers' past experience.

Dream Home connection, a division of Avalon Construction, sends handyman Zac Burnhan to handle smaller jobs, such as this small-kitchen remodel, most construction companies won't usually take on.

"I got a call this morning from a lady in Palo Alto who moved into a new house and had a number of things to do and was trying to organize herself and didn't have any idea how to do it," Hill said. "People who are calling are fearful of who might be out there and what their background is."

According to Hill, many services screen handymen before hiring them. He said he screens almost all Handyman Connection employees, except those like 81-year-old Palo Alto resident Phil Dettmer, whose experience speaks for itself. Dettmer, who has performed electrical work and other small handyman jobs for the company for two years, is a retired mining engineer who said his handyman work gives him an outlet to help people.

"One of the things I've missed in my retirement years is the relating with people, so doing handyman work has been a benefit to me in more than the monetary way," Dettmer said. "If I could repair small items in somebody's house, why then that meant a lot to me."

According to Dettmer, handyman companies can usually perform smaller jobs quickly and efficiently, whereas bigger contractors can put off such tasks or charge high fees to perform them.

"[Handymen companies] can go in and get the job done right away because they have a cadre of people like myself who are working," he said. "I'm not interested in big jobs, I'm having too much fun in life to get involved in something big."
Dettmer said homeowners were often leery about handyman work quality, but pointed out that many companies, like Handyman Connection, guarantee their work with contracts and will make changes if a customer is not satisfied.
Customer satisfaction was prime on Kacey Fitzpatrick's mind when she founded Mountain View's Dream Home Doctor last January as a division of larger contractor Avalon Enterprises. Fitzpatrick said she noticed a void in handyman service when Avalon, which focuses on larger remodeling, continually had to turn away calls for smaller jobs. Knowing how difficult it can be for homeowners to find quality handyman work, she performs personality profiling, multiple interviews and background checks on all potential employees.

"There has been a sense of people not knowing where to turn," Fitzpatrick said. "Past clients have said before we started this division, handyman small stuff was always real hit or miss with who came out and not having a person they could talk to who was real reliable or consistent."

Dream Home Doctor performs slightly larger-scale handyman work like kitchen re-facing, or replacing doors throughout a house, as well as maintenance. Fitzpatrick said handyman work could range from $100 to $100,000 and that many of Dream Home Doctor's jobs range from $30,000 to $50,000. On most jobs, the company provides an 80 to 90 percent fixed bid rather than billing for time and materials.

One group of homeowners that can have particular trouble with repairs is senior citizens, according to Ginger Johnson, director of Senior Home Repair Service at the Avenidas Senior Center. For area homeowners aged 55 and older, the service offers licensed handyman work in plumbing, carpentry, electrical work and painting for $28 an hour, plus a $5 fee for transportation. In operation for 25 years, the program also offers year-round work for special jobs like installing grab bars, cleaning gutters and minor appliance repairs, said Johnson.

For homeowners still apprehensive about using handymen services, there is always the option of going with an independent referral from a friend, according to real estate agent Paul Engel, who frequently refers clients to his own trusted handyman.

"It's like a lot of other businesses with the referral factor," he said. "Ads are like a shot in the dark and I suppose with anything else people promise more than can offer."

Engel said going with an independent handyman instead of a larger company increased efficiency and convenience, explaining that when a client buys a house and is on a home warranty program for repairs, they are referred to a different handyman company for each trade of work they need.

"It gets so inefficient like, who do I have to call now," he said. "An individual handyman knows all trades and can do all that work. Instead of having four guys go to Home Depot to buy materials and parts, one guy goes."

Regardless of whether they go with a service or an independent handyman, Engel said new homeowners often feel better when they finally get all of those pesky repairs and fix-ups taken care of.

"[Handyman] work's more of a nuisance these days," he said. "We have so many dual-income homes and to get someone to do those niggly-piggly things clears their mind and gets a load off their shoulders."

Avenidas Senior Home Repair, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto; (650) 326-5362, ext. 25
Dream Home Doctor, (650) 969-0712 or doctor@avalon-enterprises.com
Handyman Connection, (650) 261-3725