Whether you are an established handyman or just about to embark as one, you should be thinking about licenses. It’s a difficult and complicated topic, so much so that you might be tempted to ignore it altogether. Don’t! The consequences could be severe. So, put on your thinking cap, fire up a computer, and be ready to take some notes.
All the rules about licensing are decided primarily by state and sometimes by municipality and/or county. If you live in Nevada and your brother lives in Tennessee, don’t assume you are both jumping through the same hoops. Rules vary drastically from one location to the next. Begin your research by do an internet search of, “Handyman license in ____” for your state.
Rules for handymen are different from rules for contractors. In some states, handymen are subject to very little regulation, but in others, they are highly regulated. Contractors are required to follow more rules than handymen, no matter where they are.
The primary distinction between the two, regardless of location, is usually dependent upon the cost of the jobs. For instance, in CA, a handyman is someone who does work that costs less than $500, but in AZ, that limit is $750. Once you exceed those limits, you are a contractor.
You may decide to call yourself a handyman and do work large enough in scope to qualify you as a contractor. That’s (probably) fine, as long as you’ve obtained contractor licenses.
Let’s say you’ve decided to focus on the smaller jobs in order to maintain your status as a handyman. Depending on where you live, this may make getting a license easier or unnecessary.
Some states require both handymen and contractors to be licensed in particular trades, like electrical, plumbing, and HVAC. These requirements will vary by state and by trade, but you should assume that any trade license will entail a) evidence of schooling in the trade, b) some evidence of apprenticing in the trade, c) passing an exam, d) fees, and, possibly, e) proof of insurance.
But even if you don’t need a license to practice a trade – to paint, to plumb, to do electric work – because you’re doing small enough jobs to qualify as a handyman, you may still have to obtain a business license. A business license is permission from and registration with the government to operate any business, whether you’re a handyman or a baker or a hairdresser. The forms and requirements will vary wildly depending on the type of business, if it’s regulated by the state or local government, and/or if it’s regulated by a professional governing body.
At the end of the day, it’s very unlikely that you can legally set up shop as a handyman without some kind of license from someone.
The combination of licenses that you will need will depend on a) what you’re doing, b) where you’re doing it, and c) how much you’re charging.
That may seem like an impossible bureaucracy to navigate, but you know there are plenty of handymen and contractors near you and they’ve dealt with all of this. You can, too. Talk to others in your field and find out how they’ve made the system work for them. You can also join a handyman professional organization which may have experience guiding new handymen like you through this process.
Many handymen have found out the hard way that their advertising is what got them into trouble. To further complicate an already complicated set of rules, in some places it is acceptable for a handyman to do certain work, but not to advertise that he does that work. Only contractors are permitted to advertise. And what qualifies as advertising will – you guessed it – vary from place to place. Maybe you can distribute business cards, but your brother doing the exact same work as you in another state cannot.
Those who fail to jump through all the legal hoops to get properly licensed face a range of punishments if caught. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a small fine and a warning. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get a big fine and your business will be closed down. Part of being professional is playing by all the rules, even if they are difficult to understand and follow.
This is so complicated that an entire industry exists to help people like you figure it out – there are businesses you can hire to help you navigate the licensing rules in your state. If you want to play it as safe as possible, you can also hire a lawyer to help you with all the rules and paperwork. You will have to pay for either of these services, of course, but you’ll likely pay much less for this help now than you’d pay if fined in the future.
We won’t lie to you – figuring out what licenses you need and how to get them is probably going to be time-consuming and frustrating. You will spend a lot of time in front of a computer wading through government websites. But being properly licensed is part of being a responsible business owner. Your handyman business is your livelihood. Take it seriously and do it right at the beginning in order to save yourself big headaches further down the line.
This material is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.
Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!