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Finding an affordable, safe handyman

By Gary Foreman
Published: December 13, 2012

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
Can you help me? I'm a single woman and live alone in my own home. I've learned how to do some minor repairs (thanks YouTube videos!) but there are still some things like electrical and plumbing repairs that I'd like to have a pro do. Here's my problem. How do I know who I can trust? Not only to do the job properly, but also not to rob me or put my safety at risk? -- Jordan

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Jordan,
You're right. Being frugal doesn't always mean doing the job yourself. Nor does it mean always choosing the lowest price. Quality of work and your safety should also be a consideration.

So how can you find someone who's reliable, reasonable and safe to allow into your home? Let's see if we can't find a way to make that do-it-yourself project a success!

Begin by trying to determine how difficult the project is. Your answer will help you decide how professional your help needs to be.

Some repairs don't require professional training or specialized tools. If you've done it once, you can do it again. But other jobs really require someone who solves those problems daily. So gear your search appropriately.

It's obvious, but start by letting your friends know that you're looking for help with an electrical project. Often that's all you'll need to do. 

It's possible that one of those friends is an avid do-it-yourselfer who might know more about your particular problem. That person may even be willing to help you with the project or do it for you. You could choose to pay them or barter something that you could do for them.

If you don't find appropriate help from friends and family, you'll need to reach outside your circle. Look for safe places for referrals. For instance, try churches or synagogues, or local retirement homes.

Also check with your local senior center. Often they'll know of a retired pro who still does a little side work or will have a list of people that they feel comfortable recommending.

Contact any local trade schools or technical institutes. Speak with an instructor. The school may have students who could do the work for you, or an instructor who may moonlight.

Real estate agents are another good source for referrals. They deal with a lot of homeowners who need to have work done -- work that must be done well, reasonably and on time. Most will have a list of "go to" repair people they call.

One popular online resource is angieslist.com, whose core is reviews of service people from customers. It is a subscription service, so you will need to pay for membership.

Once you've identified a prospect or two, use the Web to check them out before hiring anyone. Many counties have sites that list any open lawsuits and judgments. Obviously you don't want to find your potential pro on the list.

A couple of other thoughts to reduce the cost of home repairs. Don't put off important repairs in an effort to save money. Some repairs, such as roof or plumbing leaks, can do a lot of damage if left undone. Spend $100 today to avoid spending $1,000 next month.

Finally, think beyond your present project. For instance, if you hire a plumber for one toilet repair, have them check out your other bathroom, too. You may pay them for an extra half or full hour. But you could avoid having a larger problem later. And never pay upfront for any project until the work is completed to your satisfaction. That way, you can sidestep any ugly situations where your hired help takes the money and runs before any work is done.

Jordan, congratulations on being willing to tackle some home repair projects yourself. And, also for being wise enough to know that not every repair is for the do-it-yourselfer. Some require a little professional help.

See related: Finding a handyman, Doing it yourselv vs. hiring a pro

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar Stretcher.com, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.