After she retired and left Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Dorothy Ruh bought an old farmhouse in rural Kentucky in 2010. She knew little about houses and even less about the local tradesmen in the area. Most of them wanted nothing to do with her little house with no square angles and oddities like closets without doors. They would come to her property, which was set on 2 acres of what was once a tobacco farm, assess the work and never return.
“If a contractor showed up at my door, I groveled,” Ruh, 68, said. “Whatever it takes, I don’t need estimates, please do some work.”
But few would. Problems piled up. The roof started to leak. An outside spigot burst, flooding her garden. She found one handyman who was so rude and unreliable that a friend who encountered him at the house urged Ruh to fire him. But what other option did she have?
A home needs its support crew — tradesmen like plumbers, electricians, handymen and gutter cleaners willing to show up in an emergency, but also reliable enough to do the regular maintenance needed to prevent a disaster. Without a roster of go-to professionals, an inexperienced homeowner can feel adrift, wondering if that clogged tub will ever drain again.
Three years ago, after years of searching, Ruh finally found the help she needed. Through a referral, she was introduced to a handyman who lived in the neighborhood. He showed up. He did the work well. He repaired the bathroom that had been damaged by the leaky roof. He installed flooring, built doors for those crooked closets and even closed off the outdoor spigot so it wouldn’t burst again. Now, she draws up lists of tasks, and when it grows long, he stops by and does the work. Ruh, who lives alone with her four dogs, refers to him as her “house husband.”
“I was in a state of constant panic for the first few years I was here because I didn’t know anybody, I had no idea how to do anything,” Ruh, a retired legal secretary, said. Now, “I’m so much more relaxed.”
Finding reliable and seasoned professionals takes time, and also means keeping in touch with the ones you have so that your name lands at the top of their list when your furnace fails on a holiday weekend because, face it, things invariably go awry after business hours.
“We’re finding that, more and more, people are putting together a go-team, effectively a task-management network,” said Stacy Brown-Philpot, chief executive of TaskRabbit, a search platform for handymen. But finding the right people is not easy. “There is a lot of stress. It’s hard to know who to trust,” she said.
Here are some tips for building your crew:
The Top of the List
A good plumber should top any homeowner’s list of go-to contractors. Water accounts for 45 percent of damage to homes, according to Chubb, a property and casualty insurance company, with plumbing failures cited as the top cause of non-weather related water losses. “Water is your house’s worst enemy,” said Angie Hicks, a co-founder of Angie’s List. “So having a plumber is imperative.”
Plumbers have different specialties, with some focusing on larger remodeling projects and others handling the everyday problems with water heaters, boilers, sump pumps and pipes. Most plumbers charge by the hour — usually between $45 and $200 — for ordinary tasks, according to HomeAdvisor.
Ask potential hires what they charge for emergency calls and how quickly they can respond on nights and weekends, because at some point you’re going to need one to come fast.
Where to Look and What to Ask
Friends and neighbors can be a valuable resource, particularly ones who have owned their homes for a long time. Connect with a wider network of neighbors through social media groups like Facebook and NextDoor. Ask pointed questions about how quickly the workers respond to calls, how well they clean up after they’re done and how they respond to mishaps.
Real estate brokers often have a long roster of tradespeople, so ask yours. The workers you hire can refer you to other professionals, too. If an electrician installs some recessed lights in your living room, for example, he may be able to suggest a painter to repair any damage done to the walls or ceiling.
And websites like Angie’s List and TaskRabbit can match you with professionals. Read the reviews carefully, looking to see if the person you’re considering has done similar work to what you need and what past users thought of it. Check the Better Business Bureau for ratings and complaints.
Interview potential hires
Ask potential hires for references, proof of license and liability insurance. Find out how long the company has been in business, and if it offers warranties for the work. Get a sense of their personality and working style, as you want to develop a comfortable rapport with anyone who will be coming into your home.
Different contractors have different skill sets. While one handyman might be able to lay a floor and paint a room with skill, another may specialize in tasks like assembling furniture and hanging a flat screen television. Ask what types of jobs they do regularly and for how long they’ve been working. For larger jobs, ask for photographs of past similar work and references.
“You want a handyman who is incredibly honest about what they do and what they don’t do,” Hicks said.
You may end up with a roster of tradesmen with varying skills. Program the names into your phone, or tack a sheet to the refrigerator so you can easily find them again. TaskRabbit now offers users an online to-do list to track upcoming projects and connect you with workers who can do the job.
Start looking when nothing is broken
To keep your trusted crew close, find small, manageable projects around the house. Use those jobs as opportunities to try out potential workers and remind the favorite ones that you’re still around. For example, establish a regular maintenance routine with the same gutter cleaner every season, so if an ice dam forms in the middle of winter, you know they’ll come out in the snow to help.
For Georgette Izen, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the three-family house she owns in Oxford, Georgia, her long list of trusted workers became a lifeline during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Izen, 68, who was at her son’s wedding in New York when the storm struck, received a panicked call from her tenant: A surge protector caught fire when too much electricity coursed through the house, causing a carpet to catch fire. The tenant extinguished the flames, but an electrician was needed immediately. Then the power went out, causing the sump pump to fail. And debris littered the yard.
From afar, Izen mobilized her plumber, electrician and landscaper, all of whom rushed to her house to help. The damages totaled about $4,000. Izen estimated that if it hadn’t been for the quick response, the disaster would have cost her at least $20,000, and substantially more if there had been a serious fire. She credited the years she spent giving her team her repeat business and cultivating good relationships for their fast response.
“They remember me and they come when I ask them to,” she said. “And that’s important.”