Seven secrets to finding a good handyman – and avoiding reno hell

The following article is from Canadian Real Estate Wealth Magazine.


Hunting for the right handyman to help you with your next home improvement? The search is easier than you think A good handyman is an important player on any real estate investors’ team. Having someone you trust for renovations and can depend on in an emergency will really make a difference to your portfolio’s potential – not to mention your stress levels.



So who do you turn to when you’re looking to renovate or repair a property? Here’s a simple guide to finding the right (handy) man for the job.

1) Who’s who.
Before you start looking for home improvement help it’s a good idea to figure which type of professional is best suited to the job. “A handyman doesn’t have a trade license, he knows a little bit about everything,” says Jim Caruk, master contractor of The Caruk Group. “What you have to understand is a contractor doesn’t necessarily have to be a tradesman either. He contracts everything out and he makes sure that the people he brings in are licensed tradespeople – that’s his job.”


If you’re planning a large project that requires the expertise of a number of different professionals then you’re better off looking for a qualified general contracting company. Smaller jobs are usually best suited to a handyman who has a broad range of skills and extensive experience, but is not necessarily licensed.

2) Where to look.
There are several ways to find a good handyman or contractor, says David Foster, director of environmental affairs for the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. “There are some companies that specialize in this, and the time-tested method is asking friends, neighbours and family who they use and would recommend.”


He also suggests checking with HBA websites for “RenoMark” contractors. These contractors are members of the CHBA association and comply with the association’s code of ethics, as well as renovation-specific codes of conduct. In addition they provide warranties, meet regularly to keep up to date with current trends, materials and regulations. Caruk also suggests looking at contractors’ signs in the neighbourhood. “If you see a lot of their signs then obviously they’re on the up and up and you would think that they do good work if everyone keeps hiring them.”

3) What to ask the contractor.
When calling around, there are some key questions to ask that will help you narrow down your search.


· References – ask for at least three names


· Licensing – Licenses expire annually; so you’ll need to look at it to make sure the license is still valid. A license does not guarantee the contractor is a quality tradesperson. Foster adds, “Licensing and so forth varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – consumers should check with their municipal building department to determine if any local licensing is required.”


· Insurance – Business liability and WSIS insurance is a must, says Foster. If the contractor doesn’t have valid insurance coverage, you can request him or her to buy temporary insurance. Alternatively real estate expert Paul Hecht suggests having your lawyer draft a general release that stipulates the contractor fully understands that they are responsible for any accident and damage and cannot sue you. This will protect you should something break on your property or there is an injury.

4) What to ask referrers.
Whether you’re asking friends for references, or checking out the list of names provided by the handyman, there are several questions to ask that will help you determine if you’ve found the right person for the job.

· Have you personally used them?
· How many times have you worked with them?
· What did the job entail?
· Did the project start on time?
· Was the work completed on time?
· Was it on budget?
· Were there any problems?
· Would you use them again?
· Are you getting a referrer’s fee?

5) How to get the best estimate.
Price plays a major part in deciding whom to hire. Provide each home improvement professional with the same information. This may include: plans (with simple sketches or full construction drawings), and detailed descriptions of materials and products. According to Caruk they should all be within 10 per cent to 15 per cent of each other. “If you’ve got four or five and you’ve got one that’s really, really high and one that’s really, really low what you usually do is discard the highest and lowest one and work with the three guys in between. Then go with your gut feeling.” Caruk warns homeowners not to get too carried away getting estimates. “If you start getting 10, it just makes it more confusing.”


There is also a risk of alienating good professionals. Caruk usually asks how many others are bidding for the job and if there are more than five he won’t even provide a quote. According to the CHBA, a written offer becomes legally binding and becomes part of the contract between you and the handyman should you accept it. That said there are always unexpected challenges in any project. Make sure you set aside a contingency fund in your budget.

6) What to expect from the contract.
The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggests a typical contract might include:

· Description of the work to be done – make this as detailed as possible. Include: prep work, items to be salvaged or reused, waste disposal, structural details, product information, size and location of things like doors, windows, closets and finishing work such as coats of paint and stain.

· Any permits needed and who is responsible for providing and paying for them
· Supplies and materials
· Sub contractors (if needed)
· Timing – when work is to commence and full completion date
· Terms of payment – fixed cost basis, cost plus or cost plus fixed fee
· Payment schedule – Never pay huge sums of money upfront. Some contractors will ask for a down payment as a show of good faith – on average this is about $2,500. Additional payments should be based on the work completed, not time put into the job
· Extras and how they will be calculated
· Washroom facilities and Utilities
· Standards of work (level of clean-up, hours permitted on site)
· Third-party liability insurance details
· Compliance with Workers’ Compensation and other laws
· Warranty
· Default by owner or contractor – indicates what happens if either owner or contractor defaults on terms of contract
· Dispute resolution – an agreed upon process to deal with potential conflicts

7) How to manage your handyman.
The contract forms the basis of your relationship with your contractor or handyman. According to Foster, “In all situations, effective management of a contractor requires clarity about what they are being hired to do, how and when they will do it, what their services will cost and when payment will be due, and what warranty do they provide on their work. It needs to be in writing. Every time. Period.” Once the job is underway, communication and mutual respect will play a vital role in keeping things rolling along smoothly. A good handyman or contractor should not make you feel uncomfortable for asking questions.


On the other side, try to be reasonable with your expectations. The CMHC advises homeowners, “Don’t overreact if something is wrong. Allow sufficient time for a response. As well, things the contractor can’t control, like bad weather and back-ordered components, can delay the job, so leave a little leeway in your schedule for them.” If things start to go pear-shaped, follow the dispute resolution method outlined in the contract. And if all else fails, you can cancel the contract. However, this will likely result in a cancellation fee. Be aware that there are several laws protecting consumers, which vary across the provinces and territories.


In addition to contacting your consumer protection authority, you can also get in touch with the Better Business Bureau. If legal action is necessary, you can take the contractor to small claims court. Small claims are less complicated than a formal court case and do not require the services of a lawyer. Decision in small claims courts are binding.

How to spot a handyman from hell

  • Bad presentation – Late for your initial meeting? Reluctant to answer questions? Vague about the technical aspects of how they’d handle the job? These are all indications that they might not be capable or trustworthy
  • Poor communication skills – Communication is absolutely vital to the success of any project. You need someone that is willing to listen to our ideas, concerns and suggestions and who in turn, is able to effectively discuss challenges with you as they come up
  • Requests cash only payments – Don’t be tempted if they offer a discount to you if you pay in cash. You want to keep as much of a paper trail as possible and all payments should be cheques or certified cheques
  • Doesn’t provide receipts – make sure you get a receipt for all your payments, signed and dated by the contractor
  • Does not want signage – Many renovation companies ask to promote their services to your neighbours by displaying signs on the property. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, if the company does not want to display a sign, it could be an indication it is trying to avoid scrutiny


From Canadian Real Estate Wealth Magazinea monthly publication focused on building value through property investment, covering topics such as values and trends, mortgages, investment strategies, surveys of regional markets and general tips for buyers and sellers.

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