Handyman vs. general contractor: What can a handyman legally do?

Before starting your own handyman business make sure you know the difference vs. general contractors and what you can legally do. Learn more.

handyman vs contractor

Are you looking to start a small business as a handyman? If so, it’s vital that you fully understand the licensing laws and handyman business rules in your city or state. Investigators and contractor’s boards can be incredibly strict. You want to avoid violations or having your business shut down because you weren’t operating legally.

Although there may be some crossover in the roles and services provided by handymen and general contractors, they’re unique occupations with different rules and regulations.

Therefore, you also need to know the difference between a handyman and a general contractor, since the distinction impacts the jobs you’re legally allowed to perform.

So, what can a handyman legally do? Let’s find out.

Handyman vs. general contractor

On the surface, most people might assume that there’s little difference between a handyman and a general contractor. Some may even use the two as synonyms. This is an understandable mistake—both work on homes, perform repairs and renovations, and are capable of performing a variety of handy tasks.

However, there are nuances between the two roles of a professional handyman and professional contractor:

Handyman – A handyman has a diverse set of trade skills and is talented at manual labor. Typically, handymen can legally do small jobs and simple repairs so long as they’re valued under a specific dollar amount (depending on the state).

General contractor – A contractor usually handles larger projects—whether commercial or residential—that are bid on by other professionals. Prior to bidding, a contractor will be required to have all of the proper licensing requirements. In addition, they may perform jobs that require specialists, such as a plumber, electrician, or carpentry expert (whom they will directly manage throughout the project).

For instance, a handyman may be hired to help fix a clogged sink, whereas a contractor would be brought in to replace a sink or the entire kitchen for a homeowner.

But what are the primary differences between the two?

Handyman vs. general contractor: Licensing

While it depends on the state, the vast majority of states don’t have any licensing or certification requirements to be a handyman. You must be good at what you do in order to entice clients, but there’s no bureaucratic oversight of the role. Mainly, this is because the jobs tend to be on the smaller side.

For a general contractor, there may be significant licensing requirements, including:

  • Proof of experience over a certain period of time
  • Proof of surety bond
  • Proof of insurance
  • Passing of trade, business, and law exams
  • Registering with state or local departments

For example, in California, you must have a license and registration for jobs that are more than $500. To fulfill those directives, you must:

  • Have proof of 4 years of experience
  • Have proof of a surety bond and general liability insurance
  • Pass your trade, business, and law exams

Handyman vs. general contractor: Job type & size

Handymen are often hired to do several odd jobs or small tasks like unclogging a pipe, patching a wall, or painting a room. Handymen are jack-of-all-trades, they’re good (or at least passable) at a variety of different manual-related jobs. Many have previous experience working in specialized contracting fields such as electricians, plumbers, etc.

On the other hand, contractors are brought on for large projects. Typically the job will last multiple days, if not weeks or months, and may require a team of pros to handle the undertaking. For instance, a licensed contractor may be hired to build a new deck, rewire a room or house, replace drywall, or build an entirely new part of a property.

This often comes down to the scope of the project and is largely dependent on the state you’re operating out of. However, broadly speaking, the greater the job or the more complexity that’s involved, the higher likelihood it will require a general contractor and specialists.

Handymen are hired for jobs that can typically be completed by one man in less than a day. In addition, there are limits to what can be charged for the job (including labor and materials). In most cases, that figure falls into the $500-$1,000 range.

What can a handyman legally do?

What a handyman is legally allowed to do is murky at best. Again, it depends on the state. Most have a “Minor work exemption” or “Handyman exemption” that offers leniency for certain tasks.

That said, customarily, a handyman can handle small repairs and fix-its that don’t pose significant dangers (like electrical wiring). These tasks should be able to be done by a single person and shouldn’t surpass a specific dollar amount.

If this sounds vague, that’s because the laws between states vary greatly.

So, how do you ensure that you’re operating legally?

  • Check your state contractor’s board website to find licensing rules and laws that govern the type of handyman work and services.
  • Speak with established handymen.
  • Speak with a contractors’ board investigator.
  • Avoid advertising as a contractor. In fact, explicitly state that you’re not one.
  • Certain states allow you to offer handyman services but totally forbid you from advertising them.

By doing your research, you can prevent your business from being hit with violations, penalties, or cease and desist warnings. In addition, taking these precautions helps you shield your small business from legal liability.

But that’s not the only way you can protect yourself from liability.

Insurance: A handyman’s best tool

If you’re operating as a handyman—regularly working in client’s homes and on their property—it’s important that you have general liability insurance. Although it may not be legally required by your state, it’s the smartest way to protect yourself from the inherent risks in your field. With it, you have coverage from third-party claims of property damage, bodily injury, personal injury, and advertising injury.

Being that you work project to project, always on call when a problem arises, you need flexible insurance. You need insurance that works when you do for the various handyman jobs you take on.

Here at Thimble, we offer handyman insurance for the 21st century. Our on-demand insurance policies go by the hour, day, or month, so you only pay for them when you’re actually working.

Purchasing a policy is fast (less than 60 seconds) and easy (involves three steps). Simply download the Thimble mobile app, answer three brief questions, receive your quote, and click to purchase. That’s it. Now you’re covered.

Although there may be questions surrounding what a handyman can legally do, one thing’s certain—every handyman could benefit from a general liability insurance policy. Check with your state to understand the legality of operating as a handyman, ensure you’re operating within regulations, and get insurance to protect yourself in the case that something goes wrong on the job.

Our editorial content is intended for informational purposes only and is not written by a licensed insurance agent. Terms and conditions for rate and coverage may vary by class of business and state.

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