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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
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Neighborhood networking can lead homeowners to a wealth of local knowledge
It's broken. Who can fix it?
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Credit:Mary Langenfeld

A broken lock. A squeak in your stairs. A crack in your ceramic tile or windowpane. Sticky windows and doors. These are the makings of a classic honey-do list, that inventory of small home repairs posted with a fridge magnet.

Who are you kidding? Even if you had the time, you haven't a clue how to do a proper job replacing this light fixture or patching that hole in the wall. And even if you had the patience to try to figure out how to do it yourself, your lack of experience would only make a bad situation worse.

What you need is someone well versed in repairs such as these. A contractor with broad knowledge and a half-day to fill between bigger jobs, or what they used to call a handyman but these days might be handy and female.

Ben Anton knows his way around a toolkit and hardware store. He renovated his family's current home out of a two-unit property and still does some of the work on his rental properties. But now, as a Realtor with Bunbury & Associates, a family man and urban chicken rancher, he defers more home-maintenance work to professionals.

If you don't know one, and don't know anyone who knows one, he suggests, head for a local hardware store, like the Ace on Williamson Street, and look through all those business cards under the glass. "They're an excellent resource," he says. "Making connections with neighborhood handymen - guys with college degrees in social work and all kinds of nonsense who just fix things for a living - I would say that's probably who you're going to end up working with."

His own neighborhood on Madison's east side is full of these folks, he adds. Parents of his daughter's classmates at Lapham include a cabinet-maker, a handyman and "all kinds of craftsmen who spend time working with their hands. You can almost get artisanal with some of their woodworking skills, but at the same time there's guys who just make a living fixing things."

He recommends getting a couple references from these candidates, talking to them, asking to see the work firsthand so you can judge the results. "People are often proud of their home repairs," notes Anton, who also asks for estimates based on time and materials with a not-to-exceed ceiling. "I'd rather they get paid for their time and materials," he explains, but he also likes the comfort level of a not-to-exceed number so he's not on the hook if something goes wrong.

Some handymen - perhaps many - fly along under the radar. Competent or otherwise, they may or may not carry the general liability insurance required of many contractors certified and licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. Whether this affects your ability to sleep at night is particular to you.

Anton has a handful of people he relies on for jobs. Among them: Ben Jones. He used to work at Ace Hardware on Willy Street and is now among those who have their cards under glass there. Black Dog Construction, it says, after his black Labrador retriever - though he does appreciate Led Zep. The number is 608-658-0602.

Jones, 40, is a carpenter who builds decks and remodels bathrooms but dabbles in smaller jobs - replacing a lock or light fixture, unsticking doors and windows, replacing a cracked tile, addressing gutters that have sagged - as his schedule allows. He doesn't patch damaged carpet or repair appliances, he says, and defers bigger electrical and plumbing jobs to electricians and plumbers. He can fix screens but prefers not to: "You're better off popping them out and taking them down to Martin," the glass and screen-repair company.

His rate for smaller tasks like these is usually $35 an hour, plus materials. Micro-jobs can be a scheduling nightmare unless the to-do lists add up to at least half a day, Jones says. "It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense for me to travel somewhere and work for 20 minutes," he explains. He might, however, take on one or two small fixes if he's already redoing a bathroom and the homeowner says, "Hey, as long as you're here, can you do this, that or the other?"

This reflects the lack of urgency associated with most small home-repair jobs, notes Jones, who is likewise relaxed about his own advertising. He doesn't, he says - not even in the phone book, relying instead on word of mouth. At the moment, he has as much work as he can handle, though the length of his waiting list varies by season.

A hole in your wall. Little or big, Jason Roberts can fix it - and turn it into a fight against cancer. He was 15 when he started out helping his older brother paint houses. Now 39, he is principal of Recover Painting (608-270-0440).

The name is a double-entendre. Its obvious meaning involves the nature of re-covering a wall with fresh paint. Behind it lies the story of a family ravaged by cancer. His mother, now retired, has survived breast and skin cancers, he says; a sister survived breast cancer but has since passed on; one uncle survived cancer, but it killed another.

When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Roberts was studying computer network administration. He put those ambitions on hold to sit with his father through the last month of his life. Numbed by his father's death at 58, unsure what he wanted to do, he returned to painting. It was therapeutic. In what he calls a "lightbulb moment," he launched Recover 10 years ago this month, he says, determined to donate 10% of his net to the American Cancer Society.

When it comes to holes in the wall, Roberts has fixed everything from fist-sized cavities to dents caused by someone stumbling into a wall.

The cost of fixing a hole in the wall varies by size and the extent and nature of the damage. Roberts provides estimates based on time and materials. He might bill about $100, "give or take a little bit," to fix a fist-sized hole. More elaborate repairs, involving removing a section of drywall, replacing it, taping seams, adding coats of mud with sanding and texturing to match the old adjacent surfaces, require repeated visits that may take a few days to complete and thus cost more.

"Drywall patching is a little bit touchy," Roberts observes. "It's not as easy as painting, because you're dealing with the mud. It's not like it's rocket science, don't get me wrong. But if you have a small amount of experience with it, it might not look the best."

Like some hardware stores, Habitat for Humanity's Madison ReStore keeps a collection of business cards for contractors and handymen. Jen Voichick, director of the ReStore here, pulls a handful of names together. Tim Felt is the one who picks up the phone.

The proprietor of Felt Construction (608-334-6264) has remodeled entire bathrooms and a couple kitchens but also does smaller jobs as his schedule permits.

At the moment, he is working on a classic honey-do list. "I think there's probably 15 things on the list," he says, "from attach that box to the wall to build these sets of shelves in our garage, patch these little holes where some curtain rods have been taken out, hole in a door, fix that, patch holes in sheet rock, you name it. It's amazing the different things I get called in to do, and frankly that's part of why I find it so interesting. I never get bored because every day there's something new."

He'll swap out a light fixture or change a dimmer switch, he adds, but recommends people hire electricians to dig around in their fuse-breaker boxes.

Now in his mid-40s, Felt followed a circuitous route to his current profession. He started learning the fundamentals from an uncle when he was 12 years old. Growing up in California's Bay Area, he was one of three kids. He remembers complaining to his parents that he had the smallest bedroom. They hired his uncle, an engineer by training and jack-of-all-trades by nature. "He came over every weekend," Felt says, "and he and I, with my brother's help, pushed out the wall about three feet."

A few years later, Felt was helping a contractor build another bedroom and two-car garage on his parents' summer place.

There were detours, including gigs with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska and Chile. He came to Madison to attend veterinary school but dropped out late in the third year, falling back on those life skills his parents had given him.

His rates range from $40-$45 an hour (plus materials) for bigger jobs that take several days or more, up to $50-$55 plus materials to account for the proportional scheduling inefficiencies inherent to half-day jobs. "I don't expect money up front unless it's a gigantic job," he says. "You trust me to work in your house with you potentially not here; I trust you to pay me."

That trust sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. One client put him on the Angie's List consumer review. He gets a fair bit of work from that, he says, though most of his jobs come through word of mouth.

He is now scheduling into November.

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