Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nailing the problem
Avenidas provides low-cost home repairs for seniors

by Susan Golovin

When the faucet on Sally and Harry Jennison's back porch started dripping, the senior couple needed to find a handyman. They turned to a Barron Park neighbor, who recommended Avenidas.

Avenidas, a nonprofit organization serving seniors, which is located in downtown Palo Alto, has been offering fix-it services to seniors for 28 years. Formerly known as Senior Home Repair, today the program is called Handyman Services.

John Weyer, who worked as a NASA maintenance scheduler 20 years ago, began working for Avenidas' Handyman Services to supplement his pension.

The service, which provides below-market home repairs, is available to anyone 50 or older who lives in Menlo Park, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Stanford, East Palo Alto, Los Altos, Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills or Woodside.

The new name accompanies the expansion into the latter four communities. Also, the service is now available to renters as well as home owners.

"We used to think that landlords provided for repairs, but we found that this is often not the case," said Ginger Johnson, director of Avenidas Handyman Services.

Why do people in such wealthy zip codes require low-rate repairs?

"Our mission at Avenidas is to allow seniors to be independent in their own homes," Johnson said. "Handyman Services is integral to that mission."

John Weyer of Handyman Services installs a handrail at a Palo Alto home. Handyman Services offers below-market home-repair services to people 50 or older living in Mountain View to Woodside.

Basically, Avenidas has identified the problem that seniors in all income levels experience: How do you deal with the simple chores that are "Fix-it 101" for anyone with some expertise, but yet are beyond your capabilities?

An even more basic reason for the expansion is the fact that the agency is simply responding to requests. "Originally, we didn't go to these communities because it took too much time," Johnson said. "But we had a slight drop in patronage, so we decided to include these other callers."

"Our people are experienced handymen, but they are not professional electricians or plumbers, or carpenters," she said. They deal with such tasks as fixing leaky faucets, patching paint, mending fences, and cleaning gutters and furnaces.

"We can't put in new pipes, or do major re-wiring," she added. However, Avenidas does offer a referral service for more complicated jobs.

In addition to the electrical, plumbing, painting and carpentry jobs, the handymen cater to the specific needs of seniors: access and security. They will install wheelchair ramps, grab bars, safety rails and shower extensions, as well as deadbolt locks, peepholes, security lighting and smoke detectors. A full list of services offered is available on the Web site, www.avenidas.org.

The charge is $35 per hour plus $5 a day for transportation, and any materials costs incurred. Avenidas estimates that licensed electricians and plumbers would charge at least twice that. "Our typical job requires two hours, and we have a one-hour minimum," Johnson said.

"Avenidas keeps a percentage for operating expenses, but we need to be heavily subsidized by the city," she said. Indeed, all of the programs at Avenidas are dependent on personal donations, grants and city subsidies.

"We had a grant one year that allowed us to charge low-income people who qualified $15 an hour," Johnson said. Needless to say, they'd love to duplicate that situation.

Handyman Services handles about 60 calls per month, and there are currently five handymen on staff, ranging in age from 40 to 80. The screening process is quite thorough, and applicants need to have skill in at least one of the categories of service provided, according to Johnson.

The handymen are paid, although it would be difficult to make a living from this salary alone. Some have other jobs and do this on the side to earn extra money, and others are in "active retirement."

John Weyer, who has been working as a handyman for the past two years, is really a Jack of all Trades, clever at figuring out how to fix all manner of things. He describes himself as an "octogenarian" who grew up on a farm "north of Dallas" -- in North Dakota.

"I'm a bailing-wire mechanic," he said, further exhibiting his sense of humor. "When you work on a farm in the middle of nowhere, you have to be pretty creative about fixing things."

"I used to work for Home Depot in their plumbing department, but I never had any time off," Weyer said. "This is the most satisfying job that I've ever had."

"It's a people job," he said, adding that after he finishes a job people are so grateful that he is often invited to stay for cookies and coffee and a chat. Of course, this is not included in the clocked hours.

George Nickum, a handyman for the past seven years who has his own home services business, agrees. "Some people are so happy you can help them out. They're overwhelmed by their situation, just trying to keep a home from falling down on their heads."

"I know from experience how long a job should take, and that's what they get charged, even if it takes me longer," Weyer said. For the Jennisons' job Weyer identified the part needed, went to Orchard Supply to purchase it and fixed the faucet to the owners' satisfaction.

"He's a great guy," Sally Jennison said, adding that she wouldn't hesitate to call him again.

Asked why there are no women involved in the fix-it service, Johnson relates that they used to have a female who did landscaping, but she is no longer with the agency.

"I'd love to see more women on staff," she said. "Then we'd have to change the name, and I think that would be a good thing."