Handymen Unite

NORTH JERSEY | Sunday, September 04, 2005

Fixing little things turning into big business

The deck was a wreck. The kitchen faucet was leaking. The siding was loose, and the garage door was useless.

Barbara Bultman was surrounded with fix-it jobs in her 1930s Bogota house, but she couldn't afford specialized repairmen and didn't know how to find a handyman, let alone a reliable one.

In the meantime, two years went by.

Then her daughter-in-law told her about House Doctors, a handyman service franchise she'd used to have a microwave installed. Bultman called, and a rep came and gave her an estimate for all the work.

"They are so nice, and I'm so thrilled with the price," she said. "They make it clear they don't want to rob you because they want to come back again - and believe me, here they will," she added with a laugh.

In past times, every block had a neighbor who was handy with a hammer and saw, who'd come over and patch, paint, fix, adjust or install. Where is he these days? Probably working for an insured handyman company, with a logo on his business card to match the one on his uniform.

"We are the alternative to the neighbor with the pickup truck," said Bob Palmarozza, co-owner with his wife, Susan, of the Wayne-based Mr. Handyman Tri-County. Last year, the couple did a bedroom makeover on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and a Mr. Handyman gift card was included in the gift basket distributed at the 77th annual Academy Awards. Obviously, the concept is catching on.

"It's the safety thing," Susan Palmarozza added. "We want to feel the protection of a franchise. We're also more segmented, not able to talk to the neighbors for referrals and recommendations, so we're looking for someone well-known by the masses." And as more players enter the field, it no longer has to take two years to find a handyman.

Ed Mueger, a retired businessman, started a House Doctors franchise two years ago with his son Kevin, a former general contractor. Kevin Mueger had observed that professionals like roofers and electricians can't or won't take on smaller jobs, and they are limited to the one area in which they're trained. Many of the Muegers' customers are older homeowners. Others are working couples with children who don't have the time or desire to fix all the things that break or need maintenance. "People have laundry lists of sometimes 15 or 20 different jobs," Ed Mueger said. "We've been working on a house in Teaneck where the old kitchen cabinet doors fell off, the double-hung windows needed new springs, the deck needed to be power-washed and restained, a section of fence was falling down, four shingles came off the roof in the last storm, and the garage door was broken. Our average job is seldom less than half a day; typically one to three days." The franchise idea also works for the workers. "Most men who work for us had tried to do it on their own but were tired of spending all evening overwhelmed with paperwork," Susan Palmarozza said. "Now they do what they love and don't have to worry about not getting paid." But Norm Rieger - aka the Hawthorne Handyman - is happy to stay solo. The former jacket-and-tie exec knew a lot about home repair from working in lumberyards in his youth. "I got burned out last winter and decided to leave my job and fall back on tools to make a living," said Rieger, 35. "A friend who owns a restaurant here asked me to put in some lighting, fix the gates and the roof, and other little jobs. Then he nagged me for three weeks to put an ad in the local paper. I did it as a fluke, and business has exploded. The Hugo Boss suits are hanging in the closet, and I've never been happier in my life." Giovanni Puzo, the restaurant owner responsible for this turn of events, was so satisfied with the work that he now hires Rieger to do odd jobs in his Fairfield home. "Today, unless contractors have big jobs to do, they won't be bothered with a little job," Puzo said. "I know other people with the same problem, and that's why handymen do well." Rieger estimates his flat fee based on the skills and supplies needed for the task and how long he thinks it will take. "It usually comes out to between $40 and $75 per hour," he said. "I'll charge $85 for an air-conditioner installation and $45 to screw in a piece of loose siding." He recommends that customers seeking a handyman stay away from anyone asking for a large deposit up front. "Check references, because they usually have a load of local customers. And ask for proof of insurance. Even though I may be repairing a $5 faucet part, if it floods and ruins your carpet, you're out of luck if I'm not insured." And if you're one of those neighbors who's handy with a hammer and saw, there's plenty of work awaiting you. "The only problem we have is getting qualified labor," Mueger said. "We don't use day laborers, and we need people with multiple talents. We have to hold back on advertising, because otherwise we couldn't handle the influx of work." Contractors regulated With an eye toward protecting consumers, New Jersey passed the Contractors' Registration Act in May 2004. It requires home-improvement contractors, including handymen, to register with the Division of Consumer Affairs by Dec. 31 and renew their registration annually. Anyone who advertises home-improvement services must register. The regulation doesn't apply to someone working on a family- or charity-owned property, doing work on behalf of a community organization or subject to other licensing rules (such as a master plumber, architect or electrical contractor).

Registered contractors must: Give consumers three days to cancel a home-improvement contract and refund any money paid within 30 days of receiving the written notice of cancellation. Provide a written contract for work exceeding $500. The contract must include the legal name, business address and registration number of the contractor; a copy of the certificate of commercial general liability insurance; and the total price to be paid by the consumer, including finance charges. The contract also must provide the toll-free number for the state's Division of Consumer Affairs, (800) 242-5846. Post his or her registration number on all New Jersey advertisements, contracts and correspondence with customers and all commercial vehicles registered in New Jersey. Registration can be revoked because of proven negligence, incompetence or fraud.

TACKLING TO-DOS Handymen can handle most of the stuff on everyone's to-do list. Typical jobs include: Installation: light fixtures, storm doors/windows, shelving, flooring, garage door openers, exhaust fans, garbage disposals, insulation, handrails, locks. Repair: drywall, tile, faucets, blinds, masonry. Carpentry: decks, cabinets, bookcases. Décor: hanging pictures and window treatments, painting, plastering. Maintenance: yard work/ snow shoveling, molding and weatherstripping, caulking, power washing and other heavy cleaning, garage/basement clean-outs. Childproofing. FREE SERVICES AVAILABLE Disabled homeowners and homeowners 60 and older may be eligible for a free handyman service through the Volunteer Center of Bergen County.

CHORE volunteers perform non-emergency minor plumbing, electrical, installation and repair work (no outdoor work, painting, tiling, door or window replacement, appliance repair or work involving heavy lifting or high ladders). Clients pay only for materials. Call (201) 489-7790 to schedule an appointment or to volunteer.

QUESTIONS TO ASK To make sure your project gets done on time and on budget, here are some questions to ask: Do you have current licensing/registration, and are you a member of the Better Business Bureau? Do you require an advance deposit? What proof do you have that you are qualified to do my project? What guarantee do you make that you will show up on time? Will you help me make a materials list so I can buy my own supplies, or will you buy them for me? What is your background/ employee screening procedure? How can I contact my craftsman before, during and after my job?

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