Do I need a handyman or a contractor?

The repair jobs around Rick Jennings’ home were beginning to pile up.

On his to-do list included several projects: removing a dishwasher; removing and replacing a toilet, vanity and fixtures from a bathroom; retiling a floor; and painting the interior and exterior.

Instead of hiring several workers to do each job, Jennings was able to get each project done by the same reputable handyman company he found on Angie’s List.

“I’ve had these jobs piling up for years,” says the Shrub Oak, N.Y. member. “I’m trying to get the house sold in the next few years, so I knew I needed to get it done. I was happy with the pricing they gave me for each project.”

The differences between a handyman and a contractor

Though Jennings was able to find someone to meet all his needs, there are some projects a handyman may not be licensed to do. Specialized trades, such as a plumbing or electric work, need licensing, so check with your local licensing agency to see if the handyman is properly licensed, should your project require one. If he or she isn’t licensed, you'll need to hire a specialized contractor who is. If not, you could be liable financially if damages occur. Or, if you try to sell the home, you could end up paying more to fix the issue so it meets local code requirements.

Large projects that take time, machinery and multiple workers, such as a kitchen remodel or home addition, often require a general contractor’s license. These types of projects often require multiple types of licensing and levels of expertise.

A qualified handyman, though, can often tackle in one visit several smaller projects that don’t require licensing,

“A remodeling contractor and a handyman are essentially the same thing in terms of ability,” says Dirk Hoerr, president of highly rated Budget Right Kitchens in Oak Park, Ill.. “Where a remodeling contractor and a handyman typically differ, however, is the size and the scope of the work that they perform. A remodeling contractor will often focus on larger projects that require a lot of coordination; sometimes over weeks, in order to complete.”

But not everything is black and white when it comes to hiring one or the other.

David Klein, owner of highly rated Handyman Connection of Maryland in Montgomery Village, says some companies offer both services. For example, Klein has handymen that can take care of the smaller projects, but he also holds a general contractor’s license, which gives him the ability to subcontract on large jobs. He also has a licensed electrician on staff for handyman jobs that require one.

“Aside from electrical, plumbing and HVAC, oftentimes you don’t need a license,” Klein says. “And even most of the electrical and plumbing we can do without licensing. For plumbing, a license is required if you’re changing lines, but we can install a toilet. For electrical work, they have no business touching the circuit box or routing wires unless they’re licensed, but we can change a light bulb or a fixture. I tell my customers to call me for everything, and if it’s something I’m not licensed to do or am uncomfortable doing, I’ll tell them.”

The handyman can

Handymen often charge by the day or hour and can be cheaper than a contractor because many small projects do not require multiple workers, and they usually do not have a lot of overhead costs. Some states have limits on how much work a contractor can do. In California, for example, a handyman is only allowed to do up to $500 worth of work per day.

“Handymen are very well-versed in a variety of small tasks due to the fact that they are exposed to many different minor challenges on a daily basis,” Hoerr says. “Contractors are well-versed in a variety of larger tasks due to the fact that they are exposed to many larger challenges on an daily basis. I think if a homeowner wants to keep the work scope limited, they call a handyman. If the homeowner wants to get into a larger work scope, especially where walls are being removed, they call a remodeling contractor.”

The cost of a handyman project can range from $75 to $5,000 or more, depending on the scope, but many handyman projects can be as low as $50 to $400, according to member reports.

A general contractor, meanwhile, often has proven experience in construction. Both trades should be insured and bonded to perform work.

Tips

Before hiring a handyman or contractor, take the time to interview several candidates for the job. For handymen, pick one who you’re comfortable with, because you'll be working closely with her or him around the house.

It's important to avoid handymen who call or visit your home without first checking references, as it’s hard to determine whether they’re reputable. Also be wary of any handymen or contractors that try to ask for full payment before doing any work. Ask for a written agreement that details the job, the cost and the payment schedule, and make sure to get a guarantee in writing.

You'll want to do your homework as well when hiring a contractor, especially considering you may be spending a lot of money on a project.

Home improvement experts recommend getting at least three bids. Because some contractors mark up the cost of the materials for the job, you may want to call the supplier to determine the cost of the supplies before the mark up to determine if the contractor’s was reasonable.

Paying attention to how long it took the contractor to come up with the estimate is also important. If he or she says they’ll get it to you Monday but you end up waiting until Thursday, that could be a reflection of how they will perform the job.


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