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, as investigators and contractors boards can be incredibly strict. It’s so important to avoid violations, which could shut your business down completely, because you weren’t operating legally.

Relatedly, the roles and services provided by handymen and general contractors are often conflated. It’s useful to understand the differences between a handyman vs. 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.

What can a handyman legally do?

Broadly, handymen can handle small repairs that don’t pose significant dangers or require special licensing to perform. These tasks should be able to be completed by a single person, and shouldn’t surpass a specific dollar amount. Think: Installing shelves, paint touch-ups, gutter cleaning and repair, flooring installation, and the like.

Beyond that, though, what a handyman can legally do comes down to laws at the state and local level. In New York, for instance, there are no state licensing requirements for handymen. But to operate as a handyman in New York City, a person or business must have a Home Improvement Contractor License.

With this license, the person or business can do “home improvement work” that “includes, but is not limited to, the construction, replacement, or improvement of basements, driveways, fences, garages, landscaping, patios, porches, sidewalks, swimming pools, terraces, and other improvements to structures or upon land that is next to a home or apartment building.” 1

That’s just in New York City, though. Elsewhere, some states and/or localities only require a handyman license for people performing work worth over a certain monetary amount. That ceiling varies wildly from state to state: In California, it’s $500; in Louisiana, it’s $7,500. Some states offer a “minor work exemption” or “handyman exemption,” which offers leniency for certain tasks.

Here’s how to ensure that your handyman business is operating legally:

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

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

What’s the difference between a handyman vs. a general contractor?

It may seem that there’s little difference between what a handyman can do and what a general contractor can do. Some may even use the two as synonyms. This is an understandable mistake, since both perform repairs and renovations on residential and commercial buildings.

However, there are some significant differences between the roles of professional handymen and professional contractors.

Handyman vs. general contractor: Job definitions

To reiterate, handymen have a diverse set of trade skills and can perform minor home improvement tasks and simple repairs. Depending on the state and city, unlicensed handymen may only be able to perform these tasks so long as they’re valued under a specific dollar amount.

Now, let’s compare that definition to the role of a general contractor.

Typically, a contractor oversees and manages larger projects—whether commercial or residential—that are bid on by other professionals. Emphasis on “oversee and manage” here, since GCs usually don’t perform manual labor themselves. Rather, they hire and manage construction crews and specialists, like plumbers, electricians, or carpentry experts. GCs have their own licensing requirements, which (you guessed it!) vary from state to state.

In practical terms, a handyman may be hired to help fix a clogged sink, whereas a homeowner would hire a contractor to replace that sink, or remodel the kitchen entirely.

Let’s get into a little more detail about the differences between handymen and general contractors

Handyman vs. contractor: Licensing requirements

As you know, licensing requirements for handymen depend on your state and locality.

The same applies to general contractors, but licensing requirements for GCs may be more significant. Some of those requirements may include:

• Proof of experience over a certain length of time
• Proof of surety bond
Proof of insurance such as a COI
• 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 valued at over $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.

A handyman’s best tool

The best way to protect your handyman business is to determine what, exactly, you’re legally allowed to do as a handyman. That one’s pretty obvious!

The second-best way to keep your business protected? Having general liability insurance. That protects you from third-party claims of property damage, bodily injury, personal injury, and advertising injury. Although it may not be legally required by your state, it’s the smartest way to cover yourself from the inherent risks in your field.

Thimble makes it really easy to get handyman insurance, which we designed especially for folks like you. Our on-demand insurance policies cover you by the hour, day, or month, so you only pay when you’re actually working. Just click “get a quote” or download the Thimble mobile app, answer three brief questions, receive your quote, and click to purchase. It’ll literally take you a minute to get covered.

Having insurance is a good business decision, too—if your clients know that they’re protected, they’ll feel more confident hiring you to clean their pools, replace loose tiles, repair broken windows, or any number of other odd jobs you can (legally) do for them.

1. NYC Department of Consumer Affairs. Home Improvement Contractor License Application Checklist.