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No Job Too Puny

Problem: leaky faucet, crumbling grout, shelves still in a box. Answer: the odd-job man. A search for someone willing to sweat the small stuff.

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Handyman painter Ed Hession  

Few tasks provoke Paxil-bingeing like finding a good handyman in New York. If you want to renovate your 4,000-square-foot loft, there are plenty of contractors who’ll handle the job, for thousands of dollars. But small jobs that require a handyman get ignored, partly because most urbanites wouldn’t know a monkey wrench from a screwdriver, partly because the fix-it business is frustratingly unregulated, leaving us at the randomized mercy of the classifieds. It’s hard to get people to take an interest in relatively low-paying jobs. Then when you do lure a handyman over, sometimes he gets mad and leaves (more on that later).

Unfortunately, certain long-delayed chores recently forced me to grab life by the tool belt. To wit: the Montclair corner shelves I bought from holdeverything a year ago, which have been sitting in boxes ever since. I thought “easy assembly” meant a power tool wasn’t required. But the directions suggested a drill. The closest thing I had was my battery-powered Crest SpinBrush.

And the list goes on: a bathroom that needed new grout, a wall I wanted painted, windows that needed new blinds, and a loose water-control handle in the shower.

Complicating matters, I’m a renter, so I’m unwilling to pay top dollar. Also, my building already has a handyman, and it’s always tempting to ask him to do the work, because it’s free (well, a tip). He’s fine for fixing things that are specific to the building’s equipment—like the heater and the air conditioner. But I wouldn’t trust him on detail work. It’s not his fault—a handyman can’t specialize in everything. But that doesn’t mean I should be forced to use his services. So I decided to hunt for someone else.

Not that I was breaking the rules. My lease, like many, allows for a small but reasonable amount of cosmetic changes to my apartment. Most owner-occupied buildings require that workmen show their insurance certificate—a rule that’s sometimes intended to get residents to cave in and use the building’s handyman. But whether you own or rent, you shouldn’t be intimidated into using the resident hack. After all, no one but you should decide the fate of your translucent chartreuse shelving units.

Thus began an epic quest: my search for a reliable handyman service. I tested five different methods: the Yellow Pages, both online and off; the installation services at Home Depot; a recommendation from a friend; and the Websites Craigslist and ServiceMagic. Obviously, I couldn’t be truly comprehensive—it’s impossible to try out every option in the city. But by paying as much attention to the services themselves—how easy were they to use, how large were their inventories, and how well did they match job types to handymen?—as to the handymen they delivered, I hoped to draw more general conclusions.

Step 1
Clicks, mortar, and pestle: the Yellow Pages online.

I started in the most obvious place: the Yellow Pages. But this is the 21st century, so I skipped the book and went straight to yellowpages.com. Big mistake. I typed “painting” in the search box. After clicking through a page listing dozens of subcategories, I was confronted with over 200 links to contractors—with no more information than addresses and phone numbers.

I called four anyway, got only two calls back, and wasn’t impressed enough to invite anyone over. It was like looking for a date from a list of names. Some of the people you may wind up moving in with; some might be murderers.

Before leaving yellowpages.com, I figured I’d at least get them to send me a copy of the local book. In the FAQ section, I found the following: “We’re not affiliated with the local telephone company who is responsible for issuing your local Yellow Pages book.” That felt like calling 911 only to find out they’re not affiliated with the police.

So I looked at my old Yellow Pages book, remembered that it’s actually called Super Pages, and clicked over to superpages.com. Once again, I typed in “painting”—and this time, I went direct to a list of contractors. And again, it was an unedited, alphabetized bunch of listings.

To be fair, though, there were 516 listings, many more than on yellowpages.com, and more important, some of them had descriptions, albeit uninformative ones. I called AA Perfect Painting (212-262-1059) because it was near the beginning, and left a message. A professional-sounding man named Gordon called back promptly and made an appointment to come over in a few days.

Gordon showed up on time, but all of a sudden, things were different. I showed him the parts of the bathroom I wanted painted—the same I’d described on the phone. I’d had one wall done dark chocolate and wanted the rest in the same color.


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