Chores were piling up around Kari Smith's Capitol Hill house: A pipe below her deck had burst, a bedroom door had come clean off the frame, she needed two closets built, and a ceiling fan was making a clicking noise.
Moreover, her first baby was due soon.
Smith needed some reliable help. A year earlier, she had been burned by two handymen she had hired off Craig's List, the Internet bulletin board. This time, she went looking for recommendations.
First, she asked on a neighborhood e-mail list, but she didn't get calls back from the businesses that folks there recommended. After that, she turned to her grandmother's neighbor, who did the work for $3,000, what Smith called a fair price.
Good thing. A baby girl arrived three weeks early, not long after the work was completed.
Like Smith, many area homeowners find that they must scramble to find trustworthy people to maintain the unglamorous, everyday hardware of the house, projects too minor for a big contractor but too tricky or time consuming for the average person. They lament the difficulty of finding someone who will return calls, show up on time, do the job right and finish it -- that is, if he accepts smaller jobs at all, leading those with a collapsing bookcase or unmentionable things rotting under a crawl space to seek help or referrals from neighbors, friends, the local hardware store, real estate agents and even house guests.
Demand for handyman services is high for a familiar reason: Homeowners are busy with other things.
"Two-thirds of our clients are dual-income families . . . it's a matter of time, stress, disposable income," said Mark Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodeling Inc. and its franchised handyman division, which has grown annually since its inception in 1992, to an estimated 40,000 clients in the Washington area.
Chari Voss hired a man from her Capitol Hill neighborhood who goes by Handy Andy and didn't want his full name used. Andy arrived on a bicycle outfitted with its own basket system, the better for carrying pipes -- to hang some shelves, hang bars in a couple of closets and install a light fixture.
It was "basically stuff my dear hubby could do if we didn't have two kids and had more time," said Voss, a French language translator.
Maggie Sheedy, who moved to Northwest Washington from California last year, found David Deza's handyman services through a family friend. Sheedy, a volunteer and mother of two school-age children, started off small. She had Deza's Arlington company wash some windows, work on the pool, repair porch screens and even, in a spare moment, hang a hammock. By then, she knew she could trust him for the larger job of redoing her entire kitchen.
"It is so hard to find someone to do little jobs -- to re-grout my walkway, to repaint a bench around my swimming pool," she said. "It would be a hassle for me to do, with my husband . . . I'd be taking three times as long and just making a big mess."
Deza has built up a roster of clients, with 1,300 people in his database, including White House aide Karl Rove and his wife.
Deza's rates depend on the job. Some work, especially cleaning after storms, including hauling dead branches and fixing shutters, can run about $65 per hour, said Ana Deza, his wife and business partner. Cleaning gutters can run from $95 to $300, depending upon the size and height of the house.
Costs for small jobs vary, with homeowners and handymen quoting per hour rates of $20 to $120 per hour. A neighborhood handyman who has a lot of experience but who isn't licensed, bonded or insured might cost only $35 per hour. Many typically charge for time and materials.
Others offer a standard rate per job. For example, it might cost $75 to get a window fixed, or $45 to mow the lawn.
Franchises such as Case and Mr. Handyman tend to charge more, and they may include a service charge or minimum hours, but promise licensed, bonded, insured and sometimes even drug-tested employees.
Case, for instance, charges between $85 and $90 per hour plus materials, with a new-client minimum of four hours, whether closet doors are out of alignment or a piece of molding came off "because a kid was kicking it," Richardson said. He encourages clients to have a laundry list of odds and ends they need done on such a first-time visit.
These days, the Internet provides an avenue for finding help. Some companies, such as Jeeves Handyman Services, solicit new business over the Internet. Some, like Respond Home Services, use Web sites to match customers with repair services.
Respond, which began by setting up larger remodeling jobs, recently launched a handyman category because it saw a strong market, said Brian Mehnert, the company's marketing director. Demand has been fueled by homeowners' busy schedules, coupled with the focus on home reinvestment and maintenance during the real estate boom, he said.
"With the kids, the schedules, with everything that is going on, [the service lets a] homeowner go about their everyday life," Mehnert said. Respond is fielding an average of five requests per day in the D.C. area, he said, including perennials such as wall damage and bathroom fixtures.
Small companies also take advantage of computer technology. Robert Eddy, a Washington painter who also does handyman work, many times will repair items pointed out to him when he is on a paint job, but also has an online forum and client billing service. Deza and others cull proposals and offer estimates on line.
Of course, all these bells and whistles amount to naught if you can't get someone out to your house.
"The best people are always busy and usually can't handle any more work," said John Weintraub, a co-owner of Frager's Hardware on Capitol Hill. "It's hard to get someone to come to your house for estimates for a $100 job . . . lots of handymen will put a huge price on [a job] -- three times the going rate -- because they can't be bothered with it."
But even if you get desperate, Weintraub advised, don't hire someone who works in the evenings -- good handymen start in the morning -- or someone who comes up to you on the street.
Ed Copenhaver, Weintraub's business partner for 30 years at Frager's, says he shudders when purported handymen come in to get parts for clients and have no idea what they're doing. "I've seen people, for electrical jobs, hooking up gas, that don't know how to do it," he said.
His advice: "Don't be in a hurry." Then, define the job clearly for the handy person. Third, "keep your fingers crossed," and supervise.
"Don't rush to judgment and hire the first person you talk to," Copenhaver said. "Get someone you feel comfortable with."
One alternative Weintraub has witnessed a lot is the visiting parent as handyman. Relatives or parents of grown children come to Washington for the monuments and are conscripted into the fix-it squad. They will shop Frager's for a hammer, inexpensive tools, drills and the like, because their children don't have their own and couldn't, in the name of hospitality, ask dad to bring his tool chest.
Some homeowners will go to their local hardware store seeking a handyman reference, but whether it supplies names depends on the business.
Frager's, for instance, does not make recommendations -- the owners learned the hard way from a contractor who "chewed me out" after receiving more requests for work on his answering machine than he could handle, Weintraub recalled.
"If they're good, assume they will be swamped with work," Copenhaver said.
Clinton Hardware in Clinton, Md., does recommend handymen and contractors, including a "do-anything" man who has been a customer for more than 20 years, said co-owner David Billman, co-owner, with his brother, of the neighborhood hardware store. "He does anything from putting a new socket in a lamp for a little old lady to building a deck," Billman said. "He has done work for almost all of our employees."
Strosniders Hardware keeps customers of its three Maryland locations happy with a small stable of people who do small jobs, such as carpentry or light electrical work "We have a few people we recommend pretty regularly, that we have known them for a number of years," said Craig Smith, manager at the Bethesda store. "We generally stick to recommending people we know personally and avoid everything else."
Big home improvement chains such as Lowe's don't recommend specific individuals for jobs, but they do have bulletin boards where service people can place their business cards. Lowe's also hires contractors to handle installation work on many products it sells, such as garage door openers, flooring, ceiling fans and appliances.
Sometimes, when homeowners have trouble getting a good response even from friends' recommendations, they turn to real estate agents.
Indeed, some local agents claim a coveted list of service people they call to spruce up a house for the market or to pass along to their buyers.
"Almost every client has called me for at least one recommendation," said Megan Shapiro, an agent with Re/Max Allegiance's Capitol Hill office. She sometimes refers those in need of a handyman to a talkative older gentleman in an old Australian-style hat "who does carpentry cheap," is reliable and sweet, and can repair banisters and front stairs. He charges about $25 an hour. He likes to save customers money -- and his time -- by sending them out to pick up their own supplies. He does have a requirement you hire him for a whole day, beginning at 8 a.m., sleeping baby notwithstanding, she said.
Kevin McDaniel, with the Kristof-McDaniel Realty Group at Re/Max Allegiance's Uptown office in Northwest Washington, develops relationships with repair people so he can patch a house before the listing comes on the market. The owner pays, of course, but McDaniel handles the rest, from getting estimates to overseeing the painting and caulking and carpet replacement.
Sometimes, to get a good handyman, you need to snag one who is out for an evening stroll.
Owen Philbin, who now rehabilitates homes mostly in Takoma Park where he lives, worked on handyman-type jobs for about 10 years, through 2003.
Neighbors still pull him off the street when he is out walking his dog, he said, and ask him to look at something that isn't working properly.