Advice comes in handy in quest for repair person


What happened to the proverbial handyman?

Don't be surprised if the question arises when you're urgently trying to ready your house for sale. Suddenly you must find the right person to plane a sticky door, replace a broken window, tighten a shaky banister, paint a bathroom or resurface a cracked driveway.

And no one's willing to do the work.

Sure, you can try calling on a heavy lifter -- one of those remodeling guys. He'll come over and tell you how he'd relish the opportunity to tear down and replace walls, pound in a new ceiling for your family room or build on an addition.

But mention your loose doorknobs and he's suddenly too booked to come by.

"Finding a good handyman for the small jobs is just nigh impossible," says J. D. Grewell, a home inspector based in Silver Spring. "Nobody wants to do the little odds and ends because they just don't pay the contractor."

It's often not profitable for home improvement contractors to come over to your house solely for a couple of little, nit-picky jobs, Mr. Grewell observes.

The contractor must make the drive, look over the jobs, gather the right tools and materials and then perform the work. And if they're not done to satisfaction the first time, he'll probably be asked for a call back with no extra pay.

"There's no profit in handyman work if it is to be performed by a large home improvement operation," says Jacob W. Slagle Jr., president of Slagle & Slagle, a Roland Park firm that brokers home services to consumers who pay $25 a year to become members. A firm with more than one or two employees has too much overhead to make the little jobs worthwhile, he says.

If you turn to a traditional home improvement firm for your small jobs -- known in the field as "piddly work" -- the contractor may not be the only one to lose his shirt on the deal.

The likelihood is that you'll pay much more money to such a contractor than you would if you found the right one- or two-person firm.

"The little company doesn't have several trucks on the road to maintain or the salaries of staff back in the office," Mr. Slagle points out.

Puzzled about finding the right firm to do your small home jobs without spending too much? Housing specialists offer these suggestions:

* Call the proprietor of a locally owned hardware store.

Clerks at a big home center chain will probably look at you cross-eyed if you ask them for handyman referrals. But the owners of community hardware stores are likely to chat often with local handy people searching for supplies. Hardware store owners also hear reports on the quality of contractors' workmanship, Mr. Grewell says.

* Call your local high school in search of an industrial arts teacher.

Given their salary levels, many high school shop teachers are willing to moonlight for extra money. And such teachers, who fTC usually have the mechanical and technical knowledge to offer superior home repair skills, charge low rates, Mr. Grewell says.

In addition, they typically have free hours in the late afternoon.

L * Consider hiring an off-duty police officer or firefighter.

Again, it's a salary issue. Many government employees need to supplement their incomes and have developed small home repair businesses on the side.

Although police officers and firefighters typically lack the

expertise to perform complicated or highly technical home maintenance jobs, they can usually be trusted to do basic work, such as indoor or outdoor painting or gutter cleaning, Mr. Grewell says.

* Find out whether a "punch out" person is available in your area.

During good economic times, punch-out people are in demand to quickly and competently respond to all the last-minute complaints of those ready to move into newly constructed homes. One by one, they "punch out" items on the list provided by the builder.

Lately, with a slowdown in construction related to the recession, many punch-out people are out of work. If you're able to track one down by telephoning a local builder, he's likely to provide high-quality repair work for your home, Mr. Grewell says.

* Call local realty agents for referrals.

Agents often encounter an eleventh-hour need for home repairs before a property can be placed on the market or a real estate deal can close, says Stephen R. Dallmus, vice president of a Baltimore-area home inspection firm. Many agents develop lists of contractors who can perform small jobs on an expeditious basis, he says.

* Realize that your best bet in hiring a handyman may be a woman.

An increasing number of women are entering the home improvement field and some are more willing than their male counterparts to take on home repairs, says Mr. Slagle.

"Many times women just take more care in their work," he says. "For that reason I'm almost prejudiced in favor of them for this type of work."

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