Kristina Gronquist doesn’t want to throw out her vintage ceiling fans. She wants them fixed.
There are five of them in her century-old Minneapolis duplex, and only one is fully operational. The others are sluggish, don’t work on all the settings or are nonfunctional.
“I need someone who knows how a motor works who could tinker with them, get the parts and get them going,” she said.
Gronquist got a sky-high estimate from one contractor who stopped by; another never showed up to take a look.
“I could get new ones for what it would cost to fix them but it feels criminal to toss them and add to the waste stream,” she said. “It’s a struggle to find that handy guy to take on small jobs.”
Gronquist’s lament is one echoed by many a homeowner. The reliable, versatile, dependable local handyman is an increasingly rare resource. At the same time, fewer people have the skill, time or tools to handle the never-ending list of chores themselves. And now, with many Minnesotans working from home and spending more time hunkered down there, they’re noticing all those things that need attention.
Homeowners who complain about not knowing where to find a handyman are a bit like single people who say they don’t know where to find a date but haven’t looked at matchmaking sites.
Online resources linking homeowners and contractors are too numerous to count. Seekers of handy help can jump on social media sites like Next Door or connect through sites like Thumbtack or TaskRabbit. Scores of handymen hang out virtual shingles or pay to be on referral services like Angie’s List and HomeAdvisor.
Yet despite all these resources, there don’t seem to be enough handy helpers to meet demand.
“It’s true. There’s a pronounced shortage of qualified home professionals, including handymen,” said Mischa Fisher, chief economist with HomeAdvisor. “We ask [the handymen] themselves, who have a pulse on the marketplace and the competition, and 70 percent say there’s a shortage.”
Fisher sees the gap as a matter of supply and demand. He cites statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing that the average residential dwelling in the United States is 40 years old. At that age, components in the home need maintenance, upkeep or replacement.
“Even when everything is working, people want updates, new faucets or a smart appliance installed,” Fisher said.
A handyman is helpful and necessary in condos and townhouses, as well as for single-family homeowners, and prized by every demographic, Fisher said.
“Millennials are moving into cheaper starter homes. They’re busy building careers and want someone to do the work seamlessly,” he said. “At the same time, baby boomers need help to lower a sink or install a rail so they can age in place, or they don’t want to climb the ladder themselves anymore.”
‘Fewer and farther between’
Desperate homeowners often resort to calling hardware stores for assistance.
“We have a couple [of handymen] that we refer out but they’re fewer and farther between,” said Jason Menk, manager of Guse Hardware, a longtime neighborhood landmark in southwest Minneapolis.
“People with older homes are always asking us for someone to handle smaller projects, plaster wall repairs, fixing a light switch, items on the honey-do list that no one in the family can manage.”
Ben Lindow is a one-man-band who bills himself as Mr. How Do You Do It. He left his career in construction to start his own handyman business six years ago.
“Most of the jobs come through referrals, people I’ve worked for in the past. That keeps me busy,” said Lindow, 37, of St. Paul. “I have enough work with existing customers; I have to turn down jobs in the spring and summer.”
Licensed as a general contractor, Lindow handles a variety of tasks and projects. He can install a light fixture or fix a drippy faucet but has disappointed some customers who wanted more complex electrical or plumbing jobs that require licensing he doesn’t have.
Just as customers complain that handymen are too expensive, Lindow said many customers are too cheap to pay his $125 two-hour minimum rate. And just as homeowners get annoyed with handymen who drop the ball, Lindow has grown frustrated with homeowners who do the same.
“They aren’t reliable. They cancel at the last minute and then don’t reschedule,” he said. “My time is my money.”
Squeaks and leaks
The need for a handyman is never more pressing than when a house is for sale. Squeaks and leaks that a homeowner will put up with won’t pass the test with picky buyers.
“I’d say 90 percent of houses have stuff that needs to be dealt with before they go on the market,” said Lesley Novich. A real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet for more than two decades, she has found it ever trickier to find help.
“Handymen will take whatever job they can get, then a choice job comes up, one that will make them a lot of money, and they put you off or no-show,” she said. “It’s horrible for us agents who are on a tight timeline.”
Novich has seen agents jealously guard the helpers they can count on.
“You want them to have work so they stay in business, but when you find a good one you’re careful about sharing them because they may not be available when you need them,” she said.
Dan Larkin is tired of climbing a stepladder to shove the boxes of Christmas decorations in the attic space over his three-car garage. He wants pull-down stairs that would drop out of the hole cut in the ceiling.
“I don’t know how to do carpentry, and if I get it wrong I could cut into something that would mess up the roof or the rafters or the garage door track,” he said.
A contractor came by his Brooklyn Park home to take a look but never got back to him.
“He was not excited about this. He wants to work on bigger remodeling projects,” Larkin said. “He texted me to ask for the ceiling height of the garage but what if I get it wrong and screw up the project? This is already stressing me out.”
Larkin feels sheepish about his inability to tackle home projects; right now he needs a new bathroom floor and tile replaced around the tub.
“If my grandpa was alive he’d be ashamed,” admitted Larkin, who was raised in Fairmont, Minn. “When I was growing up, farmers knew how to do everything. Farm kids were jack-of-all-trades by necessity, not like us town kids.”
But today, being all thumbs as a fix-it extends to rural areas.
“Our instructors tell us they have to spend a lot of time early on getting students up to speed in a way they didn’t have to in the past, teaching basics with hand tools, how to read a tape measure, things like that,” said Jeff Miller, who oversees technical programs at Ridgewater College, a community and technical college in Willmar, Minn.
Miller notes that there are fewer family farms, and that farm families are smaller; in an era of high-tech agriculture, the generational transfer of practical knowledge has changed.
“People learn by doing. Kids don’t go in the shop and tinker with their dad; you can’t wrench on cars like you used to,” he said. “The skills students have are different than 20 years ago. They don’t have the knowledge to fix things because their parents can’t fix things.”
And that leaves Kristina Gronquist — and her nonfunctional ceiling fans — high and dry.
“Right now the door that goes from my house to the garage is warped and needs to be shaved and I have a loose gutter,” she said. “I’m not broke; I’m willing to pay a fair price for work. I’d love to have someone I could call.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.