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Handyman vs. Contractor: What’s the Difference?

June 18, 2021 6 min. read
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Sometimes, the line between being a handyman and being a contractor can seem blurry. After all, both handymen and contractors do residential projects in the home service industry.

But aside from a few surface-level similarities, they may not be as alike as you might think. Job sizes, clients, qualifications, licensing requirements—these are just a few of the differences that define handymen and contractors.

What is a handyman?

handyman (or, more inclusively, a handyperson) is someone who does small residential projects for a living. These projects are usually home repairs or maintenance.

While you don’t need special certification to become a handyman, you do need some form of instruction or hands-on experience.

Most handymen pick up these skills by doing their own home repairs and maintenance, taking optional courses, and reading up on tasks or processes.

What does a handyman do?

In general, handyman services cover a variety of smaller, faster home maintenance and repair projects. These are just a few examples:

  • Pressure washing
  • Mounting a shelf or TV
  • Assembling furniture
  • Patching or painting a wall
  • Replacing a lightbulb
  • Cleaning gutters
  • Caulking a shower or tub

But what type of work can a handyman do legally, and how much work can you do without a contractor license? That line is usually defined by the size or dollar value of the project, or by the type of work.

For example, there is no Florida handyman license requirement for most work.

Handymen typically don’t take on large, expensive projects that affect the structure or layout of a home. For example, a handyman can fix a broken cupboard door, but they don’t build and install new custom cabinets.

READ MORE: Find out which services you can offer as a handyman

What is a contractor?

Contractors are licensed professionals with specialized skill sets who can do certain tasks in a residential or commercial setting. They’re certified in a role like:

  • Electrician
  • HVAC technician
  • Plumber
  • Carpenter
  • Roofer
  • Mason or bricklayer
  • Gasfitter

On large projects like remodels or renovations, specialized contractors report to a general contractor. The general contractor oversees the work, sets budgets and deadlines, orders materials, delegates work to other contractors, and assumes liability for the project.

READ MORE: Learn how to price your contracting jobs

What does a contractor do?

Licensed contractors can do different jobs related to their trade. To become a licensed contractor and legally perform these tasks, most states need you to:

  • Complete any licensing requirements specific to your trade (like successfully finishing an apprenticeship to become an electrician)
  • Get insurance
  • Provide business registration information, like your handyman business name and company structure

Licensing and permit requirements are different from state to state. Contact your state’s department of labor and your local contractors’ board to learn more about the specifics in your area.

READ MORE: Make money as a contractor with these expert tips

Handymen vs contractors: what’s the difference?

Here’s a breakdown of some of the key differences between handymen and contractors.

1. Licensing and qualifications

Some states only need a handyman to have proof of insurance and pass a basic exam to get a license. Other states don’t require handymen to be licensed at all.

Because different states and provinces have different legal requirements for handymen, it’s important to:

  • Check state laws and city regulations about handyman licensing and permits
  • Contact your local contractors’ board to learn about the types of tasks you can perform as a handyman
  • Complete any requirements, like getting insurance, passing an exam, or registering with the state’s department of labor

READ MORE: Check out our complete guide to handyman licensing

As a contractor, a license is a must-have and the requirements are more rigid. You may have to:

  • Demonstrate a certain number of years’ worth of experience
  • Provide proof of insurance
  • Register with a local contractors’ board
  • Register with the state’s department of labor
  • Pass an exam
  • Complete required training courses

Many specialized contractors also have to go through an apprenticeship program with formal education and supervised work experience. These programs can take several years to finish.

READ MORE: Specializing as a plumber? Here’s how to get your license

2. Cost and job size

What can a handyman legally do? In many states, handymen are only allowed to work on projects up to a certain dollar value. The amount typically ranges from $500 to $2,500.

This price limit means that handymen aren’t able to take on high-value projects like renovations and remodels. In most cases, this isn’t something a handyman would want to do anyway.

Contractors have stricter and more intensive licensing requirements, which is why they’re allowed to take on bigger construction projects.

READ MORE: Get a crash course in handyman business software

3. Expertise

When it comes to expertise, a handyman has a fair amount of knowledge in many different trades. They can take on a wide range of general projects at a low to medium cost and difficulty level.

Specialized contractors, on the other hand, are experts in a single trade. They know a lot about that subject, so they can handle everything from basic tasks to complex, large-scale projects.

READ MORE: Create an accurate contractor work order with our free template

The same goes for general contractors. They may not be specialized in one trade, but they have enough knowledge of each one to manage a construction project from start to finish.

Working on bigger projects comes with extra responsibilities and risk, which is why contractors go through a stricter licensing process. It’s their job to meet safety standards and make sure building projects are up to code.

READ MORE: Download our free handyman invoice template

Should I be a handyman or a contractor?

Becoming a handyman or a contractor is based on your personal wants and business goals. That said, there are some indicators that can help you decide which profession is right for you.

Consider becoming a handyman if you:

  • Want to take on small, straightforward jobs
  • Want to do work in several trades, not just one
  • Have experience with property maintenance and repair
  • Want to work for yourself or set up a small business
  • Are mostly interested in residential projects

While you can absolutely be a full-time handyman, it’s also a great option if you want to scale your business slowly or just have a part-time job.

READ MORE: Hire qualified employees faster with a handyman job description

Think about becoming a contractor if you want to:

  • Work on large, specialized projects
  • Become an expert in one specific trade
  • Participate in a formal apprenticeship program
  • Work as an employee or subcontractor
  • Work with both residential and commercial clients

As a contractor, you can start your own business and bring in new clients. However, most contractors have to put in time working for someone else before they can make it on their own.

To become a journeyman tradesperson, many contractors have to complete a certain number of work hours supervised by another professional. This can mean waiting a little longer to get your own business up and running, since you’ll need to be licensed first.

READ MORE: This handyman business turned online estimates into a competitive advantage

There are pros and cons to becoming a handyman or a contractor. There’s no right answer—it’s completely up to you! Whichever option you choose, just make sure it’s the right fit for yourself and your skill set.

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