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
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 chase.
In this respect, my main tool is my contract, which I refer to
as the job "proposal" when speaking with a customer. It
includes all the necessary legal protections I need, plus the
scope of work and the sales price, all on one sheet of paper.
Over time, I've learned which areas need to be spelled out to
customers, and have modified the contract accordingly to
preserve profits and keep everyone happy. Here are a few of the
clauses that have helped me.
Expiration Notice as Sales
I adjust my prices according to seasonal market demand. In
other words, if the market starts to dry up, I'll lower my bids
to make some rain. But since I don't want those prices dogging
me when business starts sizzling again, my proposals include
written notice of a 10-day life span. Beyond that point, we
The expiration date actually helps me clinch the sale; it
implies that clients had better jump on my offer now, because
that price won't last long. If the clients decide to go ahead
with the project, I make every effort to schedule their job as
soon as possible. This is important for handyman work, because
once the trail goes cold, the job budget can change, and before
you know it you're spending time looking at a whole different
When I started repairing homes in 1985, I spent a lot of unpaid
time shopping, loading, and delivering supplies to various
jobs. I now give notice in my proposals that I charge a minimum
$75 per load for deliveries.
Suppliers often charge less for this service, so clients
sometimes ask me for a shopping list and arrange their own
delivery. I actually prefer this approach, since it means that
I won't be funding their project. However, this only works if
the customers agree to follow my materials list.
I don't generate a lot of waste on most jobs — often just
a toilet or some old cabinets. This makes renting a bin
impractical, but the landfills in my area have steep minimum
fees, and it takes an hour or more to get to them. Therefore, I
include a clause requiring that clients take responsibility for
waste removal. If the debris can be broken or cut apart for
easier handling, I'll do that so it can picked up along with
the regular trash. If the client insists that I remove the
waste, I simply list a separate charge for disposal.
Because I work primarily in occupied homes, there's usually a
lot of stuff that could get damaged. For example, hammering or
cutting on one side of a wall can knock a picture off the other
side. My proposal thus makes it the client's responsibility to
remove any "at risk" items before I arrive.
Many jobs create dust, so I also advise clients to cover or
move sensitive items — even though I routinely place
tarps and hang dust barriers. And if there are kids, pets, or
both in the house, I request that they be kept out of the work
zone while I'm there.
A Key to the Place
I'll flex my schedule to work with a client (making Sunday
afternoons available on occasion, for instance), but whatever
the hours, I need to be able to get on the premises, obviously,
to work. That's why my proposal includes a clause guaranteeing
access to the site from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
Clients often just give me a spare key, though others will
arrange for a friend or a family member to let me in (but the
contact person must be an adult).
None of us can see through drywall, which is why no contract is
complete without a clause addressing hidden defects. Mine
points out that such defects can make an intended project
unworkable and that should this issue arise, the problem
— and the expense — will be the customer's, not
mine, to resolve.
It's important to raise this at the outset, especially since
certain repairs may be outside my abilities. If the hidden
problem is one I can handle, I'll add a time-and-materials
change order to the job. If the client chooses not to proceed,
I've reserved the right to cancel the remainder of the project
and charge for my work to date.
In this case, I'm not liable for returning the property to its
prior condition — the way it looked or functioned before
I uncovered a hidden defect.
A lot of the legalese is on the back of my proposal sheet. On
the front, the largest section is the blank box where I
describe the work to be performed, providing as much detail as
I can. I specify the location of the work in the house —
"in the utility room, behind the clothes washer;" "along the
top of the dining room walls, adjacent to the ceiling" —
and describe the repair itself: "Install a new pullout drawer,
made of lacquered, Baltic birch plywood with rounded top edges
and mounted on full-extension, ball-bearing slides."
I don't detail exact dimensions (other than to list per-foot
charges for items like base- or crown-molding installations);
instead, I describe approximate dimensions, as in, "Patch about
6 square feet of gypsum wallboard." If I feel it's necessary,
I'll limit the approximation by writing something such as,
"Remove damaged wood lattice, not to exceed 64 square
Describing dimensions as approximations helps prevent haggling
over payment for a task that a client might think should be
prorated — but only when it's in his favor!
Leland Stoneis a handyman in La Mirada,
by Shawn McCadden
It may sound obvious, but it's important to know when payments
will be coming in from customers — especially when cash
is tight and being short means having to borrow money to meet
overhead expenses. A simple spreadsheet is the perfect tool for
this, as my remodeling company discovered a few years back,
when we were looking for funds to implement a marketing plan
and wanted to use available cash.
The information in the spreadsheet comes directly from our
signed contracts, each of which includes a carefully planned
schedule of payments based on start dates for the job's various
phases (see Business, 7/04). For example, a payment might be
due when we start framing or when drywall is ready to
We enter the payment due dates and amounts due for all the jobs
under contract; we've already programmed the spreadsheet to
show us the total amount of work sold on any given date, the
total amount collected to date by project, and the amount we
can expect to collect for all the work that is under
Advance warning. I think of
the payment schedule as the production schedule measured in
dollars. If one month is heavy on payments and another is
light, the work load for the crew may be out of balance and we
can review the schedule and make adjustments. When the
spreadsheet indicates payments are going to be light in a
particular month, we know we may have trouble making payroll.
Thanks to the advance notice, we can give our carpenters work
we might otherwise have subbed.
If you set up a spreadsheet like this, one caution: Up-front
deposits can make a week or a month look a lot better than it
actually is. While this will balance out over time, it's a good
idea to keep an eye on deposits when sales are slow. In our
spreadsheet, we highlight deposits in a different color.
We share the spreadsheet at weekly meetings; it emphasizes to
the whole team that our goal is not just to complete the work,
but to get paid for it. With the payment schedule in front of
them, members of the production crew can anticipate the need
for invoices and get them to clients early. This helps us
collect money when it's due.
McCaddenrecently sold his
remodeling company after 14 years in business. He is a
franchise systems manager for DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen in
This is a simplified version of the
spreadsheet the author uses to track cash inflows, shortened to
show a three-month period. On the actual spreadsheet, there is
data from previous months and projected data for as many months
into the future as the company has contracts. Note that deposit
payments are highlighted because they inflate income for the
weeks in which they are posted.
Remaining Receivables as of
Total March through May