Are you handy with a saw, drill, screwdriver, hammer and nails? If you aren't then that means when something's amiss around your home, or you have a home improvement project, you must hire a handyman.
But as many older adults can attest, that process isn't easy. What's more, it's fraught with potential for being overcharged, having work done incorrectly or falling victim to a scam. While many handymen, remodelers, home contractors, painters and other service providers are ethical and competent, you want to ensure you don't wind up hiring someone who is not.
Not surprisingly, AARP has focused considerable attention on the issue, and offers tips to help older adults avoid problems.
Make a list
"The first thing we tell people to do is to compile a good solid list of things they want done, and stick to that list so they don't get off track," says Amy Levner, manager of education and outreach for AARP.
"If you want to do a bathroom remodel, make sure the work is confined to the bathroom, so you don't run into more costs than anticipated."
Your trusted friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors will be your best sources of information on good handymen and remodelers, Levner says. "Also use Angie's List, Consumer's Checkbook and ServiceMagic," she adds. "These are sites where others write in about their experiences with contractors. If I get a recommendation from a friend or family member, I will check out (the service provider) on Angie's List."
If you are looking for home improvement or remodeling work that will ensure your home will continue to be accessible as you age, look for a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS).
"CAPS is a certification program through the National Association of Home Builders," says Pam Pressel, who oversees aging-in-place initiatives for Denver-based Handyman Matters, a company with 130 affiliated handymen services in the U.S., Canada and Ireland.
Those with CAPS designation take a three-day training program that equips them with the technical, customer service and marketing skills required to service the growing market for aging-in-place home modifications, according to an NAHB website. CAPS professionals must also take 12 hours of continuing education courses every three years in building industry-related courses.
Check with BBB
AARP and other advocates suggest always checking with the Better Business Bureau before hiring a contractor. This step is heartily endorsed by Tom Joyce, spokesman for the Chicago-based Better Business Bureau of Northern Illinois. You can visit www.bbb.org for lists of BBB-accredited businesses. "If you are looking for a repairman, a roofer, or a plumber, you can get those lists by type," Joyce says, noting his office has more than 100,000 business reviews for Northern Illinois, and is connected to a national network of 4 million reports coast to coast.
Look for licensure
Levner and AARP suggest investigating to determine if the contractors you are considering are licensed in your state. "That doesn't necessarily guarantee reliability. But it does indicate that the contractor wanted to get a business license with the intent of being around for a while," she says.
Joyce agrees with this move. "Check with local and county governments to make sure the contractor has licenses and permits to operate in your area," he says.
"Sometimes, the municipality or county will be familiar with him."
Meet with at least three contractors for estimates before making a choice, Levner says. As you meet with them, be alert to red flags, such as the home repairman trying to sell you on more work than you want, the handyman making an offer that seems too good to be true, or the remodeling contractor fails to leave you feeling comfortable about his abilities.
As you discuss the project with prospective service providers, look for ideas. "Do remodelers have ideas for functional improvements to the space to indicate they're thinking ahead, and helping you think ahead?" Levner says an example of this would be a contractor suggesting supports such as grab bars that might be helpful later.
Get it in writing
Before one nail is hammered, get an agreement in writing, Levner says.
Getting all estimates in writing is important, agrees Joyce.
"Never sign a contract with blank spaces. If you sign a contract within your home, you have up to three business days to cancel the contract."
Don't pay before completion
Don't pay the final bill or sign a certificate of completion until work has been completed to your satisfaction, Levner says. "That's really important to ensure you're comfortable with the work done. If it's not done to your satisfaction you have the leverage to ensure it is."
File a grievance, if necessary. Sometimes, despite best efforts, there's a problem with a service provider and there is a need to file a grievance. The BBB can be helpful in such a case.
"They can file online at BBB.org," Joyce says. "If there's a complaint against a business, we can help the consumer with the complaint, and that can be done over the website as well."
Interestingly, complaints filed through BBB declined 8.7 percent from 2009 to 2010, despite increasing use of the bureau's services, Joyce says.
"The fact complaints are going down is counter to national averages," he adds. "We believe people are using our services proactively before they sign a contract or agree to have work done. And that's why complaints are declining."