Fix It Yourself ? Most Still Call Handyman

Collins is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Gary Abrams lugged his tool chest, which was probably heavier than the young son who followed closely on his heels, to the front door of Nellie Sullivan's 1940s Santa Monica cottage.

Sullivan is an elderly Abrams' client who was having trouble with a stiff kitchen faucet. Within five minutes he had the water off, a washer replaced and the cold water tap in the kitchen sink turning easily once again.

On his way out she said, "Did I mention the screens?"

While son Jason and Sullivan examined the flowers in the back yard, Abrams hung the screens, replacing all the broken latches. On his way out the front door Sullivan asked, "And did you get the faucet in the bathtub?"

A few minutes later Abrams did indeed make it out the front door to take Jason home to lunch and to buy a new washer for the tub faucet.

Abrams, 33, a UCLA economics graduate, traded suits and ties for a pipe wrench and hammer 10 years ago. He is a new version of an old breed--the ever-popular, ever-hard-to-find handyman.

Despite the fix-it-yourself trend, the demand for handymen has continued unabated. Perhaps the proliferation of two-income families is the cause, perhaps it is the surge in home remodeling. Or maybe there are simply fewer good handymen to go around.

Vince Orlando, a cabinetmaker and general contractor by trade, a handyman by philosophy, thinks it's the last reason, and blames labor unions for the demise of the handyman.

"Today everything is so specialized," he said in the office of his San Pedro cabinet shop. "In the old days you had to learn to do everything. But when the unions got into the business, they began to specify what you could or could not do.

"When I started out, a carpenter who ran into a little plumbing in the midst of his work would do that plumbing just to get it out of the way. The same thing would be true for some minor electrical work. Today, he'd have to stop and call in two other trades. It doesn't matter if he could save the customer a little money."

Ragnar Pedersen, a retired carpenter who has done a little of just about anything from building his own desk and tables to the needlepoint pillows that dot his home in Los Angeles, suggested that today's work ethic may be to blame.

"Youngsters today don't seem to care for this work," he said. "When they are in school, sports are more work than real working. Sports don't leave a lot of time for learning woodwork."

Abrams, who did his first home repairs before he was in his teens, prefers to call himself a "home repair contractor," but handyman is just as accurate.

He is a licensed general contractor, as are many handymen, but works on anything, from plumbing to appliance repairs and installing light fixtures to repairing sprinkler systems, fixing cracked stucco and installing smoke alarms.

By preference, Abrams does not do painting. And if he did, at $75 an hour, his standard charge, he would be the best-paid painter outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The demand for handymen like Abrams is so great that without advertising, his large appointment book is crammed. Typically, he will make four or five calls a day, all within a 15-minute drive of his home in Santa Monica.

"My claim to fame is my versatility," Abrams said, his conversation punctuated by beeps from his beeper and the near-constant ringing of the telephone.

"Although I charge more than a plumber or an electrician, I can do it all, so the client doesn't need to call out more than one repairman.

"When I make a call for a single repair, the list always increases. I never get away without, 'Oh, while you're here can you take a look at this. . . .' "

Ben Jamin, a handyman-general contractor in Canoga Park, agrees.

"Once a home is completed it needs perpetual care to keep up the value of the property. Often a homeowner has several different interrelated projects and he could spend a lot of time getting estimates and coordinating the arrival of the different trades."

So how does a homeowner or apartment dweller find a capable, reliable member of what seems to be a dying breed?

Ask Neighbors First

Start the handyman hunt with neighbors, experts advise. Next try a real estate agent or your insurance agent.

Then try a local hardware store, not one of the chain stores, but the old-fashioned kind with old guys with gnarled hands standing behind the counter.

Big C in San Pedro is such a place. And on its battered counter is a roughshod little rack of business cards for local tradesmen.

"The card rack has its own system of checks and balances," said Sam Cracchiolo, who spent his teen-age years working in Big C before becoming a handyman and later a general contractor.

"When customers take those cards home they come back later and tell the guys behind the counter about the work. If they weren't happy, the guys behind the counter will drop that guy's business cards in the garbage."

Yorba Linda Hardware in Orange County has a similar system, said owner Roy Hahner, whose store usually has "about eight cards up." But it's down to two right now, he said, because the other six handymen are booked solid with work.

Service for Consumers

There is a fairly new consumer service available called the H.O.M.E.S. Guild, which has a 200-strong membership among tradesmen throughout the Los Angeles area. The guild has a free number, (800) 647-3337, and will recommend two members to callers looking for tradesmen--carpenters, electricians and even handymen.

Most experts advise against hiring a handyman from newspaper ads. "A good handyman doesn't need to advertise," Orlando said. "He can stay busy year-round without spending a penny to promote his services."

And take precautions, advises Red Poteet, 77, a 54-year veteran of the construction industry who just started his own handyman company in Newbury Park in Ventura County.

"There are a lot of crooks out there," he said. "I tell people, 'Don't give (handymen) any money; they'll walk. Write a contract. I don't care what it's on--use a piece of toilet paper, if you have to.

"Make sure you know what they'll do for the dollar, then make him sign a release of lien that they've been paid."

Handyman fees vary dramatically. According to Orlando, carpenters are paid between $20 and $30 an hour, electricians and plumbers between $30 and $40, and a handyman somewhere in between them.

No Licensing Requirements

There are no licensing requirements for a handyman. The law simply requires a license for any job in excess of $300. However, some handymen get around that by working by the hour, so long as the homeowner obtains any necessary permits and buys the materials himself.

"It's the price, not the type of labor, that determines the need for a license," said Warren Drayton, supervisor of the Long Beach office for the Contractors' State Licensing Board.

Thus the handyman, unless he is also licensed for a single trade or as a general contractor, is limited as to the jobs he can accept legally.

The danger for the consumer is that there is no real appeals process for unsatisfactory work. There is only small claims court. The handyman also is at some risk of not being paid by a customer. This is why good references are important.

The H.O.M.E.S. Guild has a certification process, sort of a seal of approval for its members. It will only recommend those who have passed its five-member review board, and it has revoked membership for those not in good standing.

No Real Training Ground

For the most part, there is no real training ground for handymen.

Pedersen learned from his carpenter father. He continued to learn on his jobs in Norway in a textile factory and later in a shipyard. A decorated war hero, he probably even learned while working in the Norwegian underground in World War II. He moved to the United States in the 1950s, working for a cabinetmaker and later for a general contractor.

"You learn a little all the time, here and there; it just sticks," he said.

The first home repair Abrams remembers doing was a water heater pump when he was 12. Then his family moved to an old house when he was in high school and its endless problems provided his informal training.

Jamin got his hands-on experience in the trades on farms in Texas and North Dakota, where "you don't have anyone to call when things go bang in the night."

What makes someone stick with handyman work?

"You find handymen at both ends of the trade, coming and going," Cracchiolo said. "When you're young, and then you're nearing retirement. In the middle, you're raring to go, to grab the big jobs. But physically, you can't go on framing forever."

Depends on Personality

It depends on personality, Hahner said. "Usually a general contractor will look at this as a lifelong career. He's more aggressive. A handyman may want more flexibility and less pressure in his job. He has different priorities in life."

Despite the shortage of skilled, reliable handymen, Christine Graves, president of H.O.M.E.S. Guild, sees a resurgence in the trade as a new specialization.

"When you consider the handyman, think of his tools," she said. "He isn't like a roofer, or a plumber. A true handyman needs tools for plumbing, drywall, electrical work, a bit of everything. When you're a general contractor you can be at the same job for months. But there are those who like diversity, to do their thing and move on. . . ."

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