I run a one-person handyman service in Southern California. My jobs are small and short — a few hours to a couple of days — but unfortunately they're not always clear-cut. Every job is different, which keeps it interesting for me but also makes it difficult to ensure that customers know what they're getting for their money. It's too easy for homeowners to stretch their notion of what a job should include, or fail to grasp that hidden conditions can change the scope — and therefore the price — of a job. And it's easy for me to waste tons of time running around looking at jobs that will never pan out — a pitfall every small jobber is familiar with.

I'm in this to make a living, so to make sure my clients wind up happy and I get paid, I make a deliberate effort to clear up gray areas before doing any work. Since I don't have a lot of time to spend — there's no "design phase" for a job that entails replacing a rotted threshold and hanging a new screen door — I have to cut to the...

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