Nail guns for hire: How to shop for handyman services in the Twin Cities

That ominous water stain on your ceiling. The single tile that came off your kitchen backsplash. A backdoor hinge with a mysterious, maddening squeak.

There are probably several things around your place that need to be repaired, but often, you don’t have the skills, tools, or time to keep your home from falling apart.

Enter the handyman service. Hire one and you can turn over your home’s to-do list to an expert. The best services have workers who can fix just about anything, have the tools for an infinite number of tasks, and provide prompt, courteous service.

But nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook receives a lot of complaints about handyman services, most of them related to shoddy or incompetent work. A lot of consumers also feel like they paid too much for the work.

Looking for help? Through special arrangement with the Star Tribune, you can access Checkbook’s unbiased ratings of local handyman services free of charge until April 5 via:

When you contact a handyman service, the more details you provide the better. Some companies won’t perform some tasks, such as painting, while others avoid specialized work like electrical, plumbing or masonry. Some services accept only small projects; others work only on multiday remodeling jobs.

Keep in mind that workers often have strong backgrounds in some areas — say, carpentry — and know enough to do small jobs related to other trades. If your list consists primarily of projects related to one type of work, ask prospective companies if they have workers with expertise in that area. Other than for simple jobs, there’s little reason to hire a handyman service to perform specialized work. If you need plumbing work, hire a plumber—or an electrician for electrical work.

In addition to checking Checkbook’s ratings, ask friends, neighbors and colleagues for recommendations. Also ask companies for references.

Be sure the pro you choose is insured. Anyone you hire to work in or around your home should carry two types of insurance: general liability and workers’ compensation.

A fixed price is preferable for handyman work. Knowing in advance exactly what you’ll pay eliminates the possibility of future disputes—and is a key to letting you shop around to make sure you pay a fair price. If you can’t get fixed-price quotes, at least nail down hourly rates and minimum charges.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers collected labor charges for several increments of work (per worker) for a sample of area handyman services and found big differences: For one hour of work, you can pay between $35 and $324; for six hours between $210 and $1,224.

The problem with working with a company that charges on a time-and-materials basis, of course, is that some workers get jobs done much faster than others.

If you agree to pay on a time-and-materials basis, review your tasks with your worker(s) as soon as they arrive, and ask them to commit to a final price. Determine in advance who is responsible for providing materials; many handyman services charge for the time workers take to go out and shop for needed items, so if you have the time, you could save some money by shopping yourself.

Don’t assume that paying a higher price buys better work; it doesn’t. When it comes to home repairs, you don’t have to pay more to get more: Checkbook regularly finds that low-priced companies are just as likely to do good work as high-priced ones.

Once you’ve chosen a handyman for your project(s), get all the details of the job in writing. A detailed written agreement benefits both parties: The company gets to know the limits of the project, and you get to know what to expect.

Avoid companies that require large deposits or payment in advance. If your job requires a lot of materials, and the company is responsible for buying them, it’s reasonable to put up a deposit against these expenses. Otherwise arrange to pay for all work only when the job is done. This arrangement gives you leverage to make sure the work is done properly, and it’s another reason why a fixed-price arrangement works in your favor: A set fee means a company can’t charge for additional hours if it must take extra time to correct errors.

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine is a nonprofit organization that helps consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from service providers.

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