Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice. You should consult your local building regulations or a qualified attorney for legal advice.
Launching a handyman business is one of the most rewarding small startups available to individuals with repair and light carpentry skills. Starting a handyman services company is an excellent way to enter the trade crafts without having years of journeyman experience or certification from a trade school.
However, before you start marketing your services, you need to fully understand the handyman license requirements covering the types of jobs you accept in the area where you will be working.
What License Does a Handyman Need?
The specific handyman license you need to operate your business will depend on the governing body in your area that regulates the work you plan to offer. Some states or cities issue professional handyman licenses. Others require a general contractor license, while some require no license at all.
Regulators for building codes start at the state level and have representation at every descending level of government down to local municipalities and, in some cases, even neighborhood homeowner’s associations. It is your responsibility to find out what specific work you can perform. However, thoroughly understanding how licensing affects the jobs you can accept can help guide your marketing to reach customers seeking the services you offer.
This guide will provide you with an overview of license requirements for your handyman services business. After that, it is up to you to become an expert in building codes and regulations in your area.
A good place to start is our State-by-State Handyman License Guide for information on the rules in your state.
Finally, you will establish your niche as a handyman service professional who knows the type and scope of the jobs to accept and which ones to refer to a general contractor or licensed professional.
Handyman and General Contractor: What’s the Difference?
The definition of a handyman varies depending on what governing body is making the determination. The line between licensed general contractor and unlicensed handyman can seem gray, and it varies state to state and even city to city.
Usually, a job will fall under handyman services if one person can accomplish it, it’s under a certain project cost, or it stays away from any major structural or vital systems of a building like electrical, plumbing or HVAC.
You may be considered a general contractor once you hire other trade professionals, exceed a certain project cost, or delve into certain types of work. General contractors almost always need a license.
Just because you can accomplish a job alone doesn’t automatically qualify it as a handyman job. The licensing board may look at it differently, especially if it involves anything to do with plumbing or electrical, the two most heavily regulated homebuilding areas.
When faced with the question, “does a handyman need a license?” for a specific job you are considering, the first step is to determine who regulates that type of work in the area in which it will occur. Once you know who is responsible for licensing that type of work, the best policy is to approach the governing body directly with your plans and see how it responds.
To learn more about general contractor license requirements, check out our General Contractor License Requirements: State-by-State Directory.
Know the Limits on Dollar Amounts
Be aware that most home improvements cross the line from handyman project to general contractor project based on total cost estimates. As a handyman professional, your job is to understand exactly where that line is so you can bid on jobs that fall within the licensing requirements.
For example, suppose a homeowner hires you to do some touch-up painting after remodeling their living room and then asks you to paint a bedroom and a bathroom while you are there. If the original quote was within the limit for a handyman license but the new work brings the total over the limit for your area, you could risk violating the handyman license requirements.
Find the Handyman Niche
Sometimes it is difficult for homeowners to understand why there are limits on the type of work you can do as a handyman services professional. It is up to you to explain to your customers precisely what jobs you can perform and why you must pass on others.
Whenever someone asks you, “does a handyman need a license” for a specific type of work, you need to know how to answer in a way that positions the value prospect of the work you offer.
It’s a good practice to build a referral network of trade professionals with contractor licenses in areas your customers may need. Often those you refer will return the favor, helping you further develop your list of satisfied customers and grow your business.
Oversight: Why Does a Handyman Need a License To Operate a Business?
The number one reason to comply with all handyman license requirements is to avoid substantial fines and the risk of having the government close your business.
It sounds drastic, but ignoring licensing requirements and offering regulated building services outside the law are severe offenses that government officials take seriously.
Licensing regulations exist to help protect people from unsafe building practices implemented by unqualified individuals. In addition, experts have determined that trained and licensed professionals can best accomplish jobs that require extensive construction or deal specifically with electrical or plumbing systems.
The licensing authorities allow most smaller jobs that do not directly jeopardize the immediate safety of the residents to occur without regulation. The handyman professional’s responsibility is to know how far they can go without crossing the line into general contractor territory.
Avoid Insurance Hassles
Besides avoiding hefty fines and possible closure of your business, another reason to follow all handyman license requirements for any jobs you plan to take is to eliminate problems with insurance claims. If you are working outside the scope of your licensure, your insurance may not want to pay for any accidental damage that occurs while you are on the job.
Financial responsibility for damage to a home is no laughing matter, especially for a small business just getting started. Unfortunately, it can only take one such incident to damage the business financially beyond the point of recovery.
Work with your business insurance agent to determine the coverage you need to protect you as you perform handyman work for your clients. Your agent can also help you determine what licenses you may need to complete the jobs in your chosen work territory. See below for a no obligation, free insurance quote today:
Add Credibility to Your Business
Projecting yourself as a professional who knows which handyman license the government requires for specific jobs and which jobs do not require any regulation can help separate you from your competition. In addition, you can position yourself as a valuable resource for your customers and help guide them in their home improvement projects.
As your customers learn they can trust you to accomplish minor repair and maintenance jobs that fall under your realm as a professional handyman, they will also begin to rely on your judgment concerning larger jobs. Therefore, when they require a bid from a general contractor, they may want to seek your input first about the individual needed and what licenses they may need to possess.
Staying Within the Lines: How To Avoid Trouble
Knowing how to respond to the question, “Does a handyman need a license?” is not always easy. Often, the answer depends on many variables, and it is up to you to determine the laws and regulations specific to your state and local government authorities. First, determine who regulates the location of the worksite.
You will begin to hone your internet research skills as you learn the various governing bodies in your local work service area. Start at the state contractor board and work your way down to county, city, and neighborhood or homeowners’ association licensing requirements. You are building a foundation of knowledge for future use as you learn the regulations that cover the work you perform and areas where your license does not allow you to go.
Check for Leniency and Exemptions
As you learn your way around your state, county and city building authority websites, be sure to familiarize yourself with cases of leniency and exemptions granted for specific projects. In addition, municipalities and other governing boards will often encourage homeowners to improve their properties by allowing certain building activities without imposing regulations.
You will have to check if any exemptions exist for the areas in which you work, but you may be surprised to learn that work falling under a handyman license may not require registration.
Just be sure you understand the exact scope of the work you will be performing.
One common problem is “project creep,” where the homeowner keeps adding to the project, sometimes to the point of overstepping the limits of what can be legally performed by a handyman service.
Talk With Other Handyman Business Owners
One of your best resources for answering, “what license does a handyman need?” is other handyman business owners. Expand your network to include handyman business owners in areas you work or want to work. Keep the channels of communication open and be willing to share your experiences and expertise with others as you learn from them.
Reach out to other business owners in a non-threatening way that lets them know you are not out to raid their customers. Friendly competition doesn’t have to be ruthless. Tell them you are open to discussing the ups and downs of the handyman business and give of your knowledge and talent in return to make it worth their time.
Talking with other handyman business owners is the best way to find out about staying within the licensing laws while offering your clients the highest number of different services.
Handyman Business Licensing: What You Need To Know
You will learn over time that many regulations covering handyman licenses overlap. Therefore, it is better to pass on jobs that a handyman license does not cover.
For example, whenever a customer asks you to work on electrical wiring that needs repair, you should always decline. Electricians must work as apprentices and then study for and pass exams before getting their license. The safety requirements are stringent for electricians and well beyond the expertise of what a handyman license covers.
Recommended: Do I Need a Contractor License to Build My Own Home?
A similar situation exists for plumbing repairs. Most regulatory agencies require plumbers to be licensed. Errors made by plumbers installing or repairing systems can cause extensive water damage to homes and property. Therefore, a handyman license will not cover extensive plumbing repairs. However, some minor plumbing maintenance falls under the handyman’s sphere, such as fixing leaky faucets and unclogging toilets.
Other work that often requires a specific trade license is HVAC and welding.
Understand Under Whose Jurisdiction the Project Falls
The governing body in charge of building projects within a particular geographic area will determine what license you need. But, once again, here is where your research skills will prove helpful.
Determining who controls the regulations will let you know if you can complete a project for your client or will need to help them find someone with the correct license.
Sometimes, depending on the complexity of the local ordinances, it is best to seek advice from a legal professional. Look for a lawyer with experience in dealing with the local boards in the area you want to work.
Hiring an attorney with local understanding will give you extra leverage based on their inside knowledge of local regulations.
Marketing a Service Business: How To Promote Your Handyman License
As a professional handyman service business owner, your number one priority is keeping your customers happy. You will do this through the minor repair and maintenance services you provide to them and as a trusted advisor on the scope and licensing requirements of home improvement jobs they may need.
As a professional with certain limitations, focus on performing a high volume of affordable, minor repair and maintenance jobs. Immediately and professionally refer any projects outside the perimeter of your handyman license to a qualified professional.
As an added safeguard, you should explicitly state that you are “not a general contractor” in all of your marketing materials. This added step helps reduce misunderstandings between you and the homeowner about what types of work you are willing to accept. In addition, knowing this information up front helps establish you in the homeowner’s mind as someone who knows the legal licensing requirements of the building industry.
Specialize To Find Your Niche
Never let the lack of license discourage you in your handyman business. Plenty of work exists for ambitious professionals that doesn’t require any permit beyond a handyman license.
Your job is to discover how best to serve your clients with your current skills, knowledge, and licensing level. If you start to feel that your customers are asking for more, you may consider expanding the services you offer by getting your general contractor’s license.
Recommended: How To Start Your Own Handyman Business