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.
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.
“That’s it?” he said. “No way. It’s not worth my time. This job would be like airlifting someone in to do a manicure.” I looked down at my hands. He said he would charge me $550 plus materials, and insurance of “about $250, or more, who knows?” that he would have to “reimburse the building for.” That last part didn’t sound right. I know these workers are personally insured, but reimbursing the building? While I was deciding how to tell him no, he said, “Sorry, this isn’t worth my time,” and walked out.
By the book: the Yellow Pages in print.
So much for superpages.com. I turned to the actual book instead. I had little confidence—I figured it would be more outdated, with a high risk of paper cuts—but once I turned to the Paint section, I felt relieved. I had all the listings laid out in front of me, and, more usefully, I could read the ads (the ads, I realized, are the whole point). I settled on Premier Painting (800-273-9498; premierpainting.info), because it said “Affordable Prices” and “Over 30 Years Experience.” That seemed like a winning combo. According to its Website, the company does everything from bathrooms to “exteriors for multi-story buildings.”
I called on Friday at 6 P.M. A woman took my info and said someone would call back. Within three minutes, I heard from Ed Hession. I explained the project to him—and I was pretty nervous, after that last guy had left me at the altar earlier that day.
“I should be able to swing by in about an hour or so,” said Ed. And he did. This guy not only won the promptness contest—EMS could even learn from him—but he showed a real devotion to his company, coming over on a Friday evening. (And when I say “his company,” I mean it—Ed’s the president.)
I led him into the loo and showed him all the little detail areas. “This won’t be a problem,” he said. He even consulted on color, suggesting I stick with spring green and warning me about dark chocolate’s room-shrinking effect. I was impressed; Ed seemed ready for his own HGTV show. We made an appointment for Monday at 10 A.M.
Ed showed up on time, ready to get down to business. About five minutes after he went inside the bathroom, he’d already laid down a tarp and taped the moldings. He did a virtually flawless job in about four hours—no visible drips or overlaps, a consistent semi-gloss shine, and the details were right on target. Later, I checked the harder spots, like the intricate door and ceiling moldings. I didn’t find a flaw, anywhere. It was well worth $300. Ed was a major keeper.
The new kid on the block: Home Depot.
Next up: new blinds. For that, I tried Home Depot’s installation service, which the store has been advertising on TV. Home Depot hires independent, licensed contractors to install products you buy in the store. They’re mostly the same contractors you find in the Yellow Pages, but Home Depot picks for you.
Things started off great. At the Home Depot on 23rd Street (212-929-9571), a “concierge” pointed me upstairs, to the back corner, where I found a friendly customer-service rep. “Do you rent?” she asked. I said yes. “Then, considering it’s not a permanent thing, those Levolors you chose are too expensive,” she said, pointing me to less expensive Northern Heights.
After I picked my blinds, the next (optional) step was to pay a refundable deposit of $65 (plus tax) for the windows to be measured, supposedly within three days. The service rep said someone would call to set an appointment; she didn’t tell me that person was a contractor from another company until I asked. After three days, I’d heard nothing. After five days, still nothing.
On the seventh day, I got a message from Distinctive Windows. Since it was 8 P.M., I waited until the next morning to call back. A woman took my number. Johnny called back later in the day, when I was out at the grocery store. “Well, this is the number you left,” he said, “but I guess that’s not such a good number because you’re not there!” I called Johnny and informed him that one can have a functioning phone yet still have to leave the house occasionally. We scheduled an appointment for the next day.
An hour beforehand, another woman called from another number and said Johnny had to cancel. It was Thursday: She said he’d call back by the weekend. He didn’t. I called him Monday around noon. He said he was busy and would call back in a few hours. He didn’t. I called late afternoon—his voice mail said, “This is John—if you are a Home Depot customer, leave your name and number so I can provide you with excellent service.” Too late for that. I called Tuesday and left another message. Next day—his voice-mail box was full.
After another fruitless call the next day, I cracked and called Home Depot, where the operators put me on hold for five minutes and hung up on me twice. After telling the next operator “This is an emergency!,” I finally got through to window treatments, which transferred me, ironically enough, to an “expeditor.” By this point, I was through. Home Depot was very good about getting me a refund, however.
Maybe Johnny was having some personal issues. But Home Depot doesn’t seem to be picking from a gold-medal pool of contractors. The main difference from the Yellow Pages: It’s more expensive, because there’s a big, orange-aproned middleman named Home Depot.
You’ve got a friend: the recommendation.
Next up: the loose shower nozzle. This job met with laughs, sneers, or just a simple no, no matter who I called from the Yellow Pages, so I followed a friend’s recommendation for an odd-job guy who had helped her move.
James quoted me $50, which seemed high. He gave me a two-hour window, came half an hour late, did the job just fine, and then said, “I had to replace some materials—so let’s say $70.” Since the handle seemed to be working fine, I paid the surcharge, but I skipped the tip.
When my friend asked later, “How was he?” I felt awkward, answering, “He was fine.” I didn’t mention the extra $20, as well as the fact that James was the winner of the Filthy Shoes Award, tracking more muck into my apartment than all others combined. Recommendations are tricky; with a layer of friendship added in, it’s harder to be tough on details.
The democratic crapshoot: Craigslist.
My next task was only slightly bigger: the shelves that started this whole project. This time, I went one step up from a recommendation: Craigslist, the Website that’s full of ads for everything from romance to apartment rentals. The pool here is cheaper than the Yellow Pages, for obvious reasons. You don’t have to be licensed to take out a Craigslist ad: You just have to be able to write the ad. Companies do list, but mostly it’s individuals—and customers are in the dark as to whether those individuals have criminal records or use stolen vehicles.
Craigslist is democratic, but it’s also hard to navigate. Two wrong clicks and you’re answering personal ads for farm-animal sex. I found Household Services and got pages and pages of links, 100 to a page. Some were simply sloppy (“SAVE MONEY & TIME WHEN YOU NEED NEW BLINDS, SHATTERS, SHADES”), some frighteningly esoteric (“MR. EVERYTHING WITH A CAR”), and some ridiculous (“We help create extra rooms in your apt”).
I clicked one that seemed disarmingly honest: “Paint, new outlets, furniture build, moldings, fix closets so your wardrobe fits, new sink, vanity, faucets, grout, doors, you name it. Let me know—I can help.” And there was a Website, which looked legit.
I sent an e-mail to Michael Perri (917-501-7161; mysite.verizon.net/vze7yg7f/), who placed the ad, and he replied later that day. It seemed odd to start the conversation over e-mail; Craigslist is the only place you do that. But Michael e-mailed back, asking for job details, and wasn’t hesitant about giving his number, which was reassuring. We talked on the phone the next day, and he came over a few days later.
At first I was nervous; Michael looks like he’s in his twenties (he just turned 30), and he didn’t have a big tool kit—just a backpack. He quickly allayed my fears when he laughed at the standard screws that came with the shelves. “How could they give you this crappy little screw?” he said, and took a bigger one out of his bag.
After the two Montclair shelves, he installed a few flat-panel shelves on my wall. Great job—perfectly straight, secure, level. The whole thing took just over an hour. He was prompt, professional, thorough, and the price was pretty good—$100, plus tip.
My experience was good, but even in my glee, I recognized it was random. Craigslist is even more of a crapshoot than the Yellow Pages, so I wouldn’t use it for high-risk jobs. And if you do, ask the big questions: Are contractors licensed? Do they have references? Will they give a free in-person consultation?
The handyman “portal”: ServiceMagic.
For my last job—new grout on the bathroom tiles—I tried another Website, ServiceMagic (servicemagic.com). Started in 1998, it’s basically a handyman portal. You fill out a form listing the work you want done, and ServiceMagic matches you to three professional contractors in your area (they go through extensive licensing and legal and insurance screening first). You get their information, they get yours, and you work out the details. But the key to the site is its online reviews—you read other people’s feedback to help select your contractor, and after the job is done, you can post your own ratings.
ServiceMagic’s home page is the easiest to use: Pick one of 32 categories (including Handyman Services), and answer a few pertinent questions (How big is the house? When do you want the job done? etc.). I chose Tile & Stone, even though it sounded a little too palazzo italiano for my needs. Then I moved on to Describe Your Clean, Color or Maintain Tile, Stone and Grout Need. I got slightly nervous, but this is what I came up with:
“Need my GROUT re-done. It’s not completely in disrepair, but it’s not white anymore, and I need to get it thoroughly cleaned—or perhaps replaced. Looking to hire someone ASAP. Thanks. :-]”
I felt like I was writing a personal ad. ServiceMagic immediately e-mailed me a “Thanks for your request” confirmation. Within one day, I got a list of three interested companies, which was exciting—until I looked closely. Two were on eastern Long Island, and one was in Westchester. Nothing in Manhattan? Then I got a call from Cliff Ferrara of CNL Marble Restoration (914-835-4391), based in Westchester, less than an hour after I got the e-mail. He was downright Trump-like. “I just need a basic cleaning job,” I said tentatively, and he responded with, “Ah, I’m gonna rip out all your grout and replace it anyway—it doesn’t take much extra time. I gotta do a perfect job.” I felt exhilarated.
A check of Cliff’s customer ratings showed that he scored mostly five out of five stars. He had a time slot just two days later, so we set up an appointment. Cliff lived up to his reputation. He showed up on time and did a near-flawless job in two hours. It cost me $180, which wasn’t a bargain but was reasonable. He also won points for honesty. After he was done, I asked how I could maintain the new grout, showing him my generic Duane Reade Shower Cleaner. “That’s crap,” he said. “Tilex is the best.” I loved the guy.
I also loved ServiceMagic—of all the methods I used, it’s the hands-down winner. That doesn’t mean it will always supply the best handyman—for instance, my favorite was Ed the sublime painter, but he came as a lucky find after a hard trip with the Yellow Pages. ServiceMagic is the easiest, most pleasant method, and it offers the best odds of success.
I now know where to go when I need a handyman. Finally, peace; I can happily sit back and wait for things in my apartment to get old and fall apart.