Don't let repair costs drain your savings
Stop leaks before they start, and eight other ways to outwit the handyman
(Money Magazine) -- You're rushing through your morning coffee when you hear an unfamiliar dripping noise. You poke around a bit, checking the faucets, looking under the sink, and *&@#! You've got Lake Erie under there. After muttering a few more choice words, you flip open the phone book and call a plumber to come this afternoon.
This is the way most repair decisions are made - in a panic, 10 minutes after the item in question breaks. But this last-minute thinking comes at a cost.
Affluent homeowners typically spend more than $4,000 a year on home repair and maintenance, according to research by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. With a bit of forethought, however, you can ratchet down that number in a big way. Just follow this plan.
Before Anything Breaks
Create a call list. "In the repair business, there are a lot of lazy people who want to make money doing nothing," says John Burgia, president of American Elite Contractors in Jacksonville.
You're more likely to get stuck with one of them if you pick a random name out of the phone book mid-crisis. Instead, get referrals from friends and neighbors now, while your home is healthy.
Start your roster with a general handyman - someone who has basic knowledge on a broad range of repairs. Besides local operators, there are a few national firms that can hook you up, Mr. Handyman and Handyman Matters among them (mrhandyman.com; handymanmatters.com).
You'll also need an electrician, a plumber, a carpenter, a painter and possibly people who specialize in repairing heating and cooling systems, appliances, sewer or septic systems, masonry and driveways. (Note that sometimes repair people also go by the more generic title "contractor.")
Write down names and numbers, and save your list for a leaky day.
Do a quarterly home inspection. You can save big on repair costs by detecting a problem before it becomes an emergency. "It comes down to being proactive," says Chris Seman, director of operations for Mr. Handyman. "Your house is like your car. When you first hear the noise, the repair will be less expensive than when it becomes a massive shriek."
Walk your house top to bottom, looking for loose nails, holes, cracks, sags, soft spots and bulges in the walls. Run your finger around the caulk and grout in your bathroom and kitchen to see if it's chalky; if it is, it needs to be redone.
Also, be attuned to early signs of water damage, including bubbling paint, mold or drips at visible plumbing connections. Outside, look for dampness on the roof, gutters, siding, windows and doors. While you're at it, check furnace and air-conditioner filters.
Don't want to do it yourself? Hire a handyman to do a walk-through; this relatively new service runs from $100 to $500. But your seasonal savings could exceed that.
Consider entering into a maintenance contract. This is another recent industry development. You pay a set amount for a walk-through, a handful of service visits and priority scheduling status. Prices vary, but because fix-it companies tend to be small local enterprises, they are often open to negotiation.
It's a good deal if the cost is less than what you'd pay for a walk-through plus two or three visits.
Once Something Needs Fixing
Check the warranty. No need to pay for something you can get for free. Most appliance warranties are oh too short - six months to a year - but home-security systems are often covered longer. Read the documentation that came with the now-broken appliance.
Also, go to the company's Web site and run an Internet search to see if your break is common. If so, call customer service and explain that though the warranty has run out, your problem is a known defect. Ask if they can fix the item for free, replace it or, at the very least, give you a discount on a new one.
Determine whether the item is worth repairing. Handyman Matters' most common requests are to fix ceiling fans, garbage disposals, doorbells and blinds - all relatively inexpensive items.
Consider replacing rather than repairing. It may be more cost-effective (so long as you can install the item yourself!), especially given that the base charge for a repair visit is often $50 to $100.
Figure out if you can fix it yourself. Someone once said that you only need two things in a tool kit: duct tape and WD-40. If it's moving and it shouldn't be, use duct tape; if it's not moving and it should be, use WD-40.
The theory isn't far off. With the exception of problems involving electricity, gas, smoke or flowing water, most repairs are a matter of attaching, detaching, propping or lubricating. "We get a lot of calls on things people can fix themselves," says Mark Douglass, vice president of Handyman Matters. Stop by a hardware store with a photo or the broken parts; the staff should be able to tell you if your project is suitable for self-service.
If it is, they can show you how to do the job and what you'll need. The following Web sites are also fairly reliable: BobVila.com, DoItYourself.com and RepairClinic.com.
Consult your call list. If you discover that the job demands a pro, reach for that contact list you made. But before dialing, sign up for a free trial at CostEstimator.com, a Web site used by many contractors to estimate project fees, to get a ball-park figure for how much you'll be charged. (See the sidebar at right for other essential info to bring up in your initial call.)
Bundle your repairs. Let's say that a plumber comes to fix that pipe. Chances are, you forgot to mention that there's a hole in your gutter and a clog in your disposal. Well, you missed out on an opportunity to save $100 to $200 on base visit charges.
"Typically, your base charge is a service call for the contractor to go out," says Douglass. "If you consolidate it to a single trip, then there's a direct connection to savings." Keep a running list of problems, and read it before calling for an appointment.
Buy your own supplies. Repair pros mark up their supplies by at least 20%, and often charge hourly for shopping time besides. "The best thing people can do to save money is purchase their own materials," says Douglass, who adds that his staffers are usually amenable to this. If your handyman is too, ask what he'll need - brands and sizes. You'll feel really in the know when you request "two-inch metal foil tape" at Home Depot.
8 Things to Say to Any Repair Person
Sound too naive and you might as well hand over your checkbook. Here's everything you need to spell out in that first phone call.
"I was referred by Joe Smith." Name drop; a company is less likely to rip off the friend of a good customer.
"My hot-water heater is leaking, and I think it needs patching." Explain what's broken, using technical terms as much as possible (do an online search to find proper names). Say what needs to be done, if you know. By doing so, you narrow the scope of the repair--in this case, patching the water heater instead of replacing it--and therefore reduce the cost.
"This is the second time this has happened. The first time... " If there's a history of problems with the item, say so.
"Is there a way I can fix this myself?" Sometimes he'll tell you, particularly if he's busy.
"What are your rates? Will there be a trip fee or minimum?" Be clear on the payment system. Most companies have a base charge of $50 to $100, plus an hourly rate. But remember: Verbal estimates are nonbinding.
"Can I e-mail a photo?" This may save you a wasted visit fee if the repairman is the wrong person for the job.
"Can I buy the supplies myself?" If so, you could save yourself the 20% markup and the hourly rate for shopping time.
"Are you insured?" He should answer yes. He may also need to be licensed, depending on your state's requirements. Check them first yourself at contractors-license.org. The site also lists the local licensing agencies, which you can call to verify that a contractor is legit.
Honey, I stretched the house -- again