Category Archives: Contractor Vs Handy Man – How to choose

When (And Why) To Hire A Contractor VS A Handy Man

Welcome Home!
Welcome Home! This is a shot of our kitchen after a sensitive remodel.  We added quartz counters in the same colour of the original formica, which matches the terrazzo floors. My husband is a chef, so we replaced the tiny double gas wall oven with a HUGE American Range double oven.  This meant building out a new cabinet space for it. All original hardware was reused.  The light featured is original to the home and is one of three George Nelson lamps.


Hi everyone!  We’ve all been here before where we want to save money but also want the job done right.  Whether its a small thing like clearing debris or renovating a bathroom, every task matters, but the skill level necessary can be quite different.

Many folks get confused between what a handy man does and what value a contractor has so here is the primary difference:  A Handy Man typically is an individual working for himself who generally does all of the work himself.  He may, on a larger job, hire a buddy to help him accomplish the work.  When that happens, you are relying on how good his buddy is or isn’t.  Typically a handy man is doing work part time or perhaps just starting out or may just be comfortable with smaller jobs here and there and they don’t really seek out larger projects and generally are not up to the task of a large one either, even if they state that they can do it.  They cost less than a contractor for sure and for the tiny stuff, that is where I go first!  But I warn you, you cannot just let a handy man go and do work unsupervised!  They are not at that skill level.  Therefore, YOU become the Project Manager or Contractor, overseeing all the work.  And it is this reason that they are cheaper.

A contractor is essentially a Project Manager.  You should come to the table with a fairly clear idea of what you want. Check out this software for some ideas.  But the contractor should know how to do all work involved, enough to hire the right people for the various tasks at hand as well as be experienced enough to comfortably get in there and get their hands dirty along with their crew.  I encountered a contractor once, which we used for some large projects, where all they did was oversee, never actually touching the work themselves.  That contractor used a 85-95% of his time flitting from one project to the next rather than paying full attention to what was going on at my house.  There was Scope Creep, where the project took significantly longer (and therefore cost more) to complete.  Also, the work done was not at the best level.  Mistakes got made that were never addressed.  Sad because most of us really don’t have the money to do things twice.  We don’t hire him any longer.  Its sad, really, but alot of folks who cannot ‘work for a boss’ become their own boss when, if they are honest with themselves, they already know that they are not equipped to do it adequately.  When you hire a contractor, you are paying a salary and that makes you actually the boss.  A smart contractor (and handy man) recognizes this and tried to stay present and get the job done to the best of their abilities.

To drive this point home, I conduct interviews along with asking for quotes.  I want to get references and I also want to gain a level of understanding on what this person knows and how willing they appear to be to do the work.  We had a handy man once who’s work was stunning, but the man was plain lazy.  We had to light a fire to get him to finish any project he started.  He actually bailed on the very last project we hired him for,  claiming somehow that painted columns he had repaired, were not his responsibility to touch up and repaint, even though that was included in the original bid and he had bought all the paint to do it.  I was upset; he would not budge.  A year later, I let him know, by way of a mutual friend, that we were doing a major renovation and that we were hiring someone else since he never completed his last job on the columns.  Through his friend, he stupidly stated he would finish the columns if I gave him the other job.  I explained to his friend that where I work, if I did not complete a project assignment, I would be let go.  I absolutely would NOT get another project to work on!  You can lead a man to books, but you cannot make him think and the good lord knows nobody can fix stupid.  The man did great work, when he showed up.  We’d hired him for many years and a smart man would have understood that not completing a job would mean severing ties.  Sometimes great people think they are irreplaceable.  I have to explain to them that they are only as great as their last work.  I hold myself accountable with the work I do and my employer absolutely does.  Why should this be any different for people I hire with my hard earned cash?

So When do I hire a Handy Man vs a Contractor?  If I am having a hole dug to plant a tree, a doorknob installed,  getting ceiling fans or light switches installed, or maybe a small bit of Sheetrock done in an inconspicuous place or perhaps patch painting said Sheetrock, I may hire my Handy Man for those kind of tasks.  For any important painting or Sheetrock, such as a focus wall,  something that will be noticeable and seen every day, or a large undertaking like counter-tops or kitchen/bath remodel, large landscape project – all of that goes to an experienced contractor (landscape designer/company).  And wherever possible, I start with a small job to see how they do before I engage them in a larger scope of work.  We moved last year and a contractor I love and work well with was busy on other work.  So we initially hired another individual.  We provided 2 months notice for our remodel so that our contractor could  block that time out with his people.   We wanted all or at least the bulk of the remodel finished prior to moving in.  First, our contractor was  a bit slow on the draw to come out, to measure etc.  I had kitchen countertops I wanted along with cabinetry work done for a new double wall oven going in.  We thought at the time we only needed a roof patch and the Atrium floor was uneven, with cheap broken tile.  The Atrium is a focal point as the entire home wraps around it with 3 sliders opening up to it.  The Atrium had to pop and had to be done right away.

God Does You Favors Sometimes – This worked out very well but at the time was quite upsetting.  This contractor I’ll call Ed, said he got another much larger project so that he was going to take that work on instead.  While he could do me the favor of still getting my counters done, it was clear to me that he would not be focused solely on my job.  Plus I had really, for the sake of cohesiveness, wanted to work with ONE contractor to manage ALL the work needed.  Right in the midst of my meltdown, my favorite contractor, Francesco, had stopped by.  I explained my upset, no Atrium work would be done and this way cool ‘Knife Edge’ I wanted on my counter-tops,  Ed’s stone guy said ‘just isn’t done’ with no further explanation as to why not.  My explanation that I had just seen Knife Edge done in a design store kitchen, so maybe they should go see that and report back to me met with a blank stare.   So I was not happy.  I’m not a contractor but I really hate feeling like the village idiot when I come up with an idea and that idea gets dismissed as stupid.

Francesco,  had just wrapped up one project and the other had been pushed out leaving cycles to do the work I needed.  We discussed atrium cement, how it would need to be a lot bigger in scope than what Ed said.  Our Atrium ceiling has a big hole I call the moon roof in the center of it.  The cement would need to be ground level yes but also ground down in order to make it even with the threshold once new tile was applied.  A french drain should also be added.  All this to remedy a corner of our Atrium from turning into a pool during heavy rains. Honestly I want a pool and my husband has assured me I would be found dead in it if that were to ever happen.  But I sure don’t want a pool in our Atrium!

Later, Ed showed up and when I noted all the cement grinding needed to match the threshold from the Atrium into 3 sliders going into our house, he said ‘I never thought of that.’  His quote to do the Atrium work was a full 5k less than what we paid Francesco but where I had heartburn at the job going from 5k to $10,500, it was a blessing hearing those words from Ed which confirmed the additional money was well spent.  Rather than having a botch job where it would never be right until it was redone, it is done now to last a lifetime.

As a Project Manager, I understand that a contractor is essentially a PM who oversees all work done on the project.  As a PM, I also understand the intrinsic value to hiring one(a good one).  While you pay extra for this individual, a good contractor is a worthwhile investment.  For example, I once had a contractor and the job he did was beautiful.  One of his workers, who was great on the project, gave me his card as he did a lot of smaller jobs on the side.  I hired him just once directly.  The work was poor quality.  The work was actually night and day from his level of efforts when working for the man rather than himself directly.  I wonder if he wonders why I never called him back for more work.

Things to ask in your interview – Beyond overseeing the overall project, will they be doing any of the work themselves?  What is their level of experience?  How long have they worked for themselves?  Do they enjoy the work and what part of it do they like best?  Are they insured? Who are their references?  And of primary importance, will they be wrapping up or initiating new business while they are working for you?  You want someone that will be dedicated to your job rather than flitting from one project to the next as this translates to scope creep and errors made.  He cannot watch over his people at your project if he is elsewhere.

Scope – This should freaking go without saying, but it seems I have had to point it out on so many occasions that now I just as a habit do so.  We discuss the scope of the work and as I noted earlier, I try to start them on a small project first.  I explain that to me, regardless of the size of the project, it’s a big deal for me. i am paying for it and its something that I will be seeing often and something that should last where i am not having to repeat steps more than necessary.  I am connected with my neighborhood, with my neighbors, I am a business woman and I know people.  I love to share out great reviews on folks who have done exemplary work for me!  I am also part of a neighborhood board that posts companies and individuals  and shams to avoid.   I explain that I always maintain my property well and I have expensive taste, so something is always going on.  This means that if we work well together, there is going to be an ongoing relationship and more work, more projects.  The smart people get it.

Cost – Again, hiring a contractor to PM your project is going to cost you more.  That stated, a good one is well worth it.  The contractor I use, I have used repeatedly.  He is a bit more expensive than everyone else, but the job is done right, flawless and he is ready to address any issues.  As one of my good friends put it, he signs his work.  He takes great pride in what he does.  For our landscaping project, currently underway, he has hand picked every boulder going in.  Rather than just order gravel to be delivered, he drove around looking at the gravel first because he wanted the sizing and colour to be a certain way. He hand picked each plant and tree.  He is also great with advice and ideas, very creative, a cross between a designer and a contractor and the best of them encompass this ethos.

After spending years undoing and redoing someone else’s shoddy workmanship, discovered later, much of it ‘no warranty’ I have found a great contractor and now always use that person.  I do the very same for good handymen, Carpet/ductwork/floor guys etc.  Anybody who does me right, I retain that info and I am happy to pass that to my neighbors to generate business for them.

Don’t be cheap.  If you have found someone that does great work, pay the little bit extra to get it done right.  Life is full of enough drama without adding more to it.  Please post comments are ask any questions you may have and all the very best in your next remodel project!