The Handyman Challenge

The Handyman Challenge
By Danielle Reed

The Wall Street Journal
Page W1
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

[A fix-it guy with a laptop? With big chains moving in on the growing home-repair market, even simple jobs are getting complex. Danielle Reed pits franchises against locals.]

STEPHEN AND THEA DEEM figured repairing their back door would take only a few hours, so they called in a handyman to tackle the job. He fixed the door all right -- and then offered to keep on going, tiling, painting and paneling other rooms, for a final tab of $6,000. Mrs. Deem is still stunned. "We'd planned on about $500," says the Maine homeowner.

If you haven't hired a handyman lately, you're in for a surprise. Spurred by mounting demand and aging homes, the old handyman is fast becoming the nation's new contractor, handling simple and, now, ever-grander projects. According to the National Association of Home Builders, home-maintenance and repair spending is up 14% in the past two years, with many handymen now toting laptops and charging up to $70 an hour. One of the biggest in the business, Mr. Handyman of Ann Arbor, Mich., has 96 franchise affiliates, nearly double from two years ago. "We're not just doing something on the side. It's what we do for a living," says David McKinnon, chairman of Mr. Handyman's parent, Service Brands International.

But what kind of job do they do? To find out, we hired handymen all over the country and asked them to fix a wide range of problems, from a relatively routine leaky faucet to a sticky door that's been bugging us for years. We even hauled in one to replace a waterlogged ceiling, a project that wound up taking a two-man crew two full days. Along the way, we were surprised to find that the stereotype of the handyman has come a long way -- one showed up wearing blue hospital booties to keep our floor clean, and all but two gave us solid estimates and stuck to them. On the other hand, we were insulted, stood up and told our doorknobs were just fine, thank you.

Our biggest lesson: With few licensing requirements and standards for the industry, prices are all over the board. For one job, a handyman gave us a quote 10 times what another workman wanted for a similar project. A big corporate name is no guarantee of quality or speedy service, either (three weeks for a stuck door?).

Indeed, complaints about home-repair and remodeling services jumped 35% in 2002 from a year earlier, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus -- twice as fast as all complaints. In the most recent survey by the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, home contractors earned the most-complained-about spot, up from third-place the year before, beating out even car salesmen.

Of course, hiring a handyman has always been somewhat of a hit-or-miss proposition. But now the stakes are getting higher, with demand fueled by aging boomers who want to skip the do-it-yourself approach. More than half of all homes in the U.S. are more than 25 years old, and all those McMansions need their elaborate bells and whistles attended to. Even the down economy is helping, with more people turning to quick fixes instead of elaborate renovations or replacement projects.

No wonder, then, that big companies have been angling for more of the business. Case Handyman Services, for instance, got its start when Case Design/Remodeling wanted a way to help remodeling clients with little jobs -- without tying up busy contractors. Now it has 38 franchise partners, and expects to hit 50 this year. In all, handymen are one of the fastest-growing segments of the $48 billion home-maintenance market, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

For our test, we picked projects in cities across the U.S., pitting a franchise workman in a face-off against a local handyman. We then asked both to tackle jobs comparable in size and scope. Here, some of the highlights:

Repair water-damaged ceiling


BEST FEATURE: Spiffy laptop-toting salesman gave us an instant quote


TIP: If it seems like overkill, it probably is

Ever since our roof leaked a year ago, our ceiling has looked like it contracted leprosy -- scabby, with little flakes that occasionally fell off onto our heads. We thought we'd try the local Case Handyman franchise first, and we got an appointment in just a few days. But not with a contractor. Instead, salesman Josh Rothman arrived in a spiffy white van and spent nearly two hours at our place. His only tool: a laptop computer he used to put together an estimate -- $1,530 for a repair and paint job. Only after we handed over the required deposit (one-third upfront), did he schedule the actual work, which took two men about two days to complete, much of it spent meticulously taping plastic around the room so they wouldn't get any spackle or paint on our furniture.

We were pretty happy with the results until Mike Bulliston of Mike's Painting Plus showed up to fix the same problem in another, somewhat smaller, room. Mr. Bulliston, who'd been recommended by our real-estate agent, moonlights tending bar and doesn't have a fancy van -- or carry proof of insurance. He finished the repair work in four hours (and didn't get paint on anything, despite skipping the plastic). His price: $125. "We're sort of like going to the dealership to fix your car," says Mark Richardson, president of Case. "You pay for expertise, having it done right the first time, and the level of insurance." Thanks, but we like Mike.

Replace doorknobs

(Portland, Ore.)

BEST FEATURE: Getting multiple jobs done for price of one

WORST FEATURE: Insults to our taste

TIP: Check for minimum charge

Among the projects on the Mr. Handyman Web site spring checklist are things like power washing and removing rotted wood from the deck. But we had a much smaller job in mind: replacing the doorknobs on our hallway doors, which weren't closing right. Too bad no one would do it.

Our first handyman, Martin Peck, owner of a local company called Z Best Handyman, took one look at our new brushed-metal knobs and flat out refused. Our old brass knobs were much nicer, he said and it'd be "a shame" to replace them. As to fixing the old ones, he started talking us through the job -- but didn't take it on. Oh well, at least he didn't charge us.

That's when we turned to the nearby Mr. Handyman outlet. Local tech Todd Brooks arrived wearing a gray "Mr. Handyman" sweatshirt and slipped on those blue hospital booties. But after looking at our new knobs, he, too, told us to keep the old brass ones -- they were "too pretty" to replace; he'd just fix the latch instead, a task that took five minutes. With 55 minutes left on his $58 one-hour minimum, Mr. Brooks fixed our toilet, our screen door's screen and latch and then changed two lightbulbs. ("I've brushed cobwebs off ceilings for people," he said when we admitted feeling silly.) As for the new doorknobs, we're giving them away -- if we find someone to take them.

Install hardwood floors

(New York)

BEST FEATURE: At least it's done

WORST FEATURE: Specialist who wasn't

TIP: Agree on how job is to be done upfront

Before we started on this job -- putting in hardwood flooring in two small rooms in our house -- our contractor father-in-law assured us it was simple. "Any fool can do hardwood," he said. Well, not quite: This project stumped not only the local Rent-a-Husband, but also our "specialist," a flooring installer we found in a local contractor's guide, making it our all-around worst experience.

Rent-a-Husband is one of the smaller franchise outfits, but founder Kaile Warren's an aggressive marketer and he's even taken over do-it-yourself guru Bob Vila's spot on CBS's "The Early Show." (The gimmick: He helps a female homeowner with a repair that's been bugging her for months.) Maybe our "husband" should watch more often: After putting us off for almost a week, he showed up without all the necessary tools and then didn't follow our directions for laying the flooring (he did it parallel to the floor joists, rather than across them). Now we're worried the floor's going to warp over time. (Franchise owner Sam Robinson says his is the normal way to put in a floor.)

But our specialist was even worse -- he left visible gaps between boards (a big no-no) and then didn't fit on all the pieces to give the floor a finished look we'd asked for. Owner Allen Rapaport says he usually looks at all the jobs himself and that the problems were fixed when we complained.

Minor plumbing repairs (Boston)

BEST FEATURE: Speedy work

WORST FEATURE: Unreturned phone calls

TIP: Ask to go "on call" if you can't get an appointment

Our jobs here (a leaky faucet and a toilet that wouldn't stop running) were classic handyman fare: just complicated enough for homeowners to get wrong, but not major enough to call in a big contractor. Indeed, among the top-10 handyman projects are things like making small roof repairs, fixing rotted window frames (big in Florida), even taking out room air conditioners and putting them back in.

In our Boston jobs, we didn't see a huge difference between the brand name and our local Mr. Fix-it: Both were hard to get hold of (we ended up going "on call" with Mr. Handyman, meaning they called us when they had a last-minute opening), and did their jobs in about 15 minutes. And in both cases the repairs turned out to be pretty minor -- our sink needed a new "top hat" washer, while the toilet required a new float. The fees: about $60 each. So should we have worried that our independent workman, Henry Scopa, didn't bring along proof of insurance? "I'm just changing a washer here, not doing surgery," he told us.

Repair a doorbell (Los Angeles)

BEST FEATURE: Guided tour of Home Depot

WORST FEATURE: Our dining chairs got a workout

TIP: Ask for a ladder

A handyman on hiatus from the studios? Well, this is L.A. But when Johnny Lawton from local outfit Randy the Handyman knocked on our door (he was there to fix the doorbell), he quickly let us know this wasn't his real job -- he'd been laid off as a computer tech doing desktop support for companies like Warner Bros. Still, he not only drove us to Home Depot (in his Camaro -- no truck here) and helped us pick out a new doorbell, he installed it in less than half an hour -- albeit standing on one of our dining chairs to do the work because he didn't have a ladder. (Cost: $300, though Mr. Lawton also helped us hang a picture and looked at some lights we might want to change.) But now we had a new problem -- it was deafening.

That's when we asked Handyman Connection to come by and see what they could do. Our plan was to replace the bell with a kinder, gentler model. But the rep who arrived (wearing a collared shirt and glasses) told us we'd need a transformer for that and it'd muck up the walls of our house. His solution: Put a small piece of Velcro on our existing bell to muffle the sound. Then, like Mr. Lawton, he borrowed a dining chair to stand on (don't they give these guys ladders?) and put the mute in place. Score one for ingenuity.

Stuck doors (Washington, D.C.)

BEST FEATURE: Nifty vest for tools

WORST FEATURE: Grumbling about scheduling

TIP: Don't wait eight years for repairs

We never would have guessed we'd find handyman heaven just outside the nation's capital -- and at bargain rates, too. Ever since we bought our house the doors have been sticky -- in fact, our front door jams so badly we stopped using it years ago. But we figured there wasn't much we could do. Enter "Fidel" Maldonado, of CDM Construction in nearby Alexandria, Va. After standing back and slamming the door a few times, he delivered his diagnosis: Our builder had nailed the frame into place instead of using screws. No matter. Within half an hour Mr. Maldonado replaced the nails, patched a hole in a closet, charged us $100 -- and then zoomed off in his white van like a modern day Lone Ranger.

We figured no one could top that, and things didn't look good for Case Handyman's Roger Poling -- especially when he showed up two hours late, and grumbling to boot (he'd called to reschedule but we insisted he keep the appointment). But, like Mr. Maldonado, he got right to work, taking down our sticky dining- and powder-room doors, planing and rehanging them. He even pointed out that some of our kitchen cabinets were crooked (we hadn't noticed) and readjusted the hinges. Cost: $115, or just a hair more than Mr. Maldonado. On a follow-up visit to repair some moldy -- and as it turned out, ant-infested -- drywall, he not only weatherstripped and caulked our front door to keep insects out, he vacuumed up the hundreds of ants that had come spilling out of our wall. Now that's a handy man.