Like many homeowners, one of your New Year's resolutions may be to do some home improvements. Unless you're handy, you're likely to be in the market for a handyman (or handywoman) who can do in minutes the tasks that take you hours.

"A lot of consumers can quickly get in over their heads with home improvement projects," says Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List, which provides reviews of contractors and other service providers. "It's not something people should engage in if they're not comfortable."

But even for experienced homeowners, finding a competent person who will do good work, show up on time and charge a reasonable price for the job is often a challenge.

"Referrals matter more than anything when it comes to contractors," says Brandon Turner, vice president of BiggerPockets.com, a networking and information site for real estate investors. A veteran real estate investor and rehabber, Turner has had his share of struggles with handymen and contractors.

He recommends always being on the lookout for good workers, asking friends, family, subcontractors and hardware stores for referrals. Once you find a quality handyman, he will appreciate new business you bring him through referrals as well.

"Having a relationship with a handyman is a relationship you can have for years and years and years," Hicks says.

Angie's List is one of a number of websites where you can find contractors listed and reviewed by other homeowners. The site charges homeowners a small fee to view and post reviews. You can also find reviews on Porch.com, HomeAdvisor.com and Yelp.com. On some sites, the contractors pay to be listed or for a more prominent listing. That makes these sites a good starting point for finding contractors, but online reviews shouldn't substitute for personal reference checks.

Here are 12 tips to find and keep a reliable handyman or handywoman:

Ask everyone you know for referrals. Turner often posts his requests on Facebook, but Nextdoor.com, neighborhood websites, email lists and referral websites are all also places to seek recommendations. Employees and owners of independent hardware stores are also often excellent resources.

Test your new handyperson out on smaller projects first. If you're trying a new professional, start with a smaller job so you can test whether the worker shows up on time, does the job well and cleans. Once that test is passed, you can move on to bigger jobs.

Be precise about what you want done. Contractors aren't mind readers. If you tell a worker to paint your kitchen cabinets, for example, before the job starts you will want to discuss the type of paint, number of coats, whether you want the hinges painted and any other important details. "Otherwise, the contractor just makes up what they think is best, and they're usually not good judges," Turner says.

Don't hire a handyman to do skilled work. A handyman may be able to change a faucet, but you don't want him doing a major plumbing job. "Water is a homeowner's worst enemy," Hicks says. Electrical work and heating and air conditioning work also require more specialized skills. Make sure you're hiring the right person for the job.

Make sure the professional has done your type of job before. The handyman may be great at painting, but if he's never laid patio bricks before, he may not know how. Before you hire, ask about his experience doing what you want done. "You do not want a handyman who is using your house as a guinea pig project," Hicks says.

Check references and read online reviews. Ask for references of former clients, and then call those references. Online reviews are useful, but they often don't tell the whole story.

Know what requires a permit. Many types of repair and remodeling jobs require a permit from the city or county. A licensed handyperson can pull a permit for you, but you are the one responsible if unpermitted work is done. Do your homework so you're not in violation of the law.

Ask about licensing and insurance. Licensing rules for handy work vary by municipality. In some cities, most seasoned handymen and handywomen will be licensed, and in other cities they may not be. Ask for a copy of the license and then contact the local or state agency that issues the licenses to verify it is still valid. "I try to work only with handymen who are licensed," Turner says. "If they're not licensed, they don't have a lot to lose."

Beware of people who knock on your door and offer to do home repair jobs. Good handymen don’t need to solicit, and posing as legitimate home repair workers is a common ruse for thieves. Beware of handyman who ask you to get building permits, want payment in cash or pressure you make a quick decision, according to HomeAdvisor.com, which provides referrals to contractors.

Don't pay for work up front – and keep outside payments separate. A handyperson usually doesn't ask for a down payment before the work starts. Be leery of anyone who asks for a substantial payment (above 10 percent of the job's cost) in advance of work. If you're going to use expensive materials, suggest you pay the supplier directly.

Get estimates in writing. Since many handymen aren't skilled writers, you can draft the contract or job list yourself, with details and prices, and have him sign it if he doesn't want to offer a written estimate.

Don't just pick the lowest bid. Resist your frugal impulses when searching for the best handyperson. "The cheapest is not always the best," Turner says. "In fact, they're usually not."

Tags: real estate, home improvements, housing, money, home prices


Teresa Mears writes about personal finance, real estate and retirement for U.S. News and other publications. She was previously the real estate blogger for MSN Money and worked as the Home & Design editor for The Miami Herald. During her journalism career, she worked on coverage of immigration, religion, national and international news and local news, serving on the staffs of The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. She has also been a contributor for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She publishes Living on the Cheap and Miami on the Cheap. Follow her on Twitter @TeresaMears.