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What Is the Difference Between a Handyman and a Contractor in California?

When there's repair work to be done around the house, whether it's fixing an appliance, renovating a kitchen, or replacing a roof, most homeowners call in for some help. Both handymen and contractors are helpful and knowledgeable about all sorts of useful tasks to improve a home or business building. However, handymen and contractors are different in what they are allowed to work on and what types and sizes of jobs they can take on. California is particularly strict and specific on these definitions and just what is allowed for handymen and contractors, and it's vital to be aware of these distinctions to stay within the law. This guide explains everything you need to know about the differences between a handyman and a contractor in California, as well as the requirements for licensing and becoming a contractor.

Handyman vs. Contractor

Handymen and contractors both complete helpful work for homes and businesses, such as repair work and remodeling jobs. And while they may sound like the same thing, there are some key differences to be aware of. In general, handymen and contractors can have the same level of ability and training or even years of experience. The main differences involve the size and scope of the work they can take on legally and whether they have certain licenses. The details on the licenses and legally allowable amounts of work vary from state to state, and in California, very specific rules differentiate handymen and contractors.

Handyman vs. Contractor in California

In California, a contractor's license is mainly what differentiates a handyman from a contractor, as well as the overall cost of the projects they can take on legally. Generally, handymen can complete projects that have a total cost of $500 or less. This cost includes both labor and materials used. A licensed contractor needs to complete any projects above this level to comply with California law.

Does a Handyman Need a Contractor's License in California?

A handyman in California is welcome to open their own business and start taking on certain jobs without a license. There is no "handyman license" in California, and so you can legally perform various tasks without becoming a contractor and getting a license. The only caveat is that jobs must be less than $500, including the materials and labor. If jobs are more specialized, such as with plumbing or electricity, or go above that $500 limit, then a contractor's license is required.

 

How Much Work Can You Do Without a Contractor's License in California?

As mentioned above, a handyman can complete many tasks without a contractor's license in California. Many handymen can start their own businesses without getting a contractor's license and take on all sorts of smaller repair jobs. As a handyman, you can choose this as a way to start getting customers and build your business over time, while you work on getting the proper licenses for contracting. Or they may just keep a smaller business going, only accepting smaller-scale jobs.

The important thing to remember is the $500 limit. California is very strict on this cost limit, and any work over this limit requires a contractor's license to complete legally. While you might think that breaking a larger job into smaller parts would be a way around this issue, or that you could charge separately for different smaller jobs, this is not legal under California law. You could not even contribute work toward a larger project that involved other contractors if the total job was more than $500. If the handyman took on work above the $500 limit, and then encountered problems later on, such as not getting paid, they would not be able to file a suit to get full payment because this work was not within the legal limits.

What Can a Handyman Legally Do in California?

With all of these restrictions, you may be wondering just what a handyman can actually do. Handymen can do all sorts of different repair and renovation tasks in homes or commercial buildings without a license, including:

  • Appliance repair
  • Repairing and installing doors
  • Fence repair
  • Drywall patching or hanging new drywall
  • Mounting television sets
  • Installing ceiling fans and light fixtures
  • Fixing toilets
  • Repairing or replacing electrical outlets

There may be other specific tasks that a handyman can complete — this is just a sample of various tasks that would usually fall in the "under $500" category and not require other specialized licenses. The main distinction is that $500 level, and anything beyond this would require a contractor's license in California.

Even with the $500 restrictions, there are still some questions regarding specific types of projects that are allowed. For example, even under the cost limit, certain jobs like more complicated plumbing or electrical work may require additional training and licensing.

Can a Handyman Do Plumbing in California?

A handyman can do certain small plumbing tasks like fixing a faulty toilet or installing a new faucet. However, more extensive plumbing work like re-doing the pipes in a home or a more extensive bathroom remodel would need a specialty plumbing contractor. Most of these larger jobs would go over the $500 limit anyway.

Can a Handyman Do Electrical Work in California?

Similar to plumbing work, a handyman is allowed to do smaller electrical tasks such as repairing an outlet or installing a light fixture or ceiling fan. But larger electrical jobs that require more extensive wiring jobs or larger-scale requests that would go over the $500 limit need to have an electrical specialty contractor on the job in California.

 

Why Following the $500 Limit Is Important

If you're a handyman, it might be tempting to try to find loopholes or otherwise get around these seemingly arbitrary limits. However, these rules are in place to protect both handymen and clients, and it's important to follow the law. Many handymen think they can complete a larger job by breaking it up into smaller jobs and charging separately or doing specialty electrical or plumbing work. Even if you know how to do the job or your clients ask you to do the extra work, it is still against the law and is best to turn down this type of work until you are fully licensed.

In California, a special task force watches for contracting violations and has been known to conduct sting operations to catch those not in compliance with the law. Any handy work that does not comply with these laws can come with some serious consequences, including:

  • Tickets and fines for the handyman: If caught, a handyman can be ticketed by an officer and required to pay fines and fees for the infraction. This is a serious offense in California and can result in hefty fines and even jail time. And while it seems unlikely that you'd be caught, it is very possible and simply not worth the risk.
  • Insurance risks for clients: Even if you know what you're doing and the client requested the work, as a handyman, you can still make mistakes. If a handyman's mistake damages a home, say in the form of a fire, flooding, or other severe damage, and the handyman isn't properly licensed to perform the work they completed, the homeowners may not be able to make insurance claims for the damage. This reflects poorly on the handyman and can result in further complications like bad reviews or legal litigation.

Protect yourself and your clients, and only accept jobs within your legal limits. These scenarios are not likely to happen, but it's not worth the risk to push the limits. You and your clients can have better peace of mind knowing that you are all legally protected and only performing work allowed by law.

Advertising Your Services as a Handyman

When you're building any kind of business, advertising is important to get the word out about your products and services. However, as a handyman, you do need to be careful about the way that you advertise your services. It's perfectly acceptable to advertise yourself as a handyman, but take care in listing the specific services you are willing to provide. Advertising that you take on projects like painting, electrical work, plumbing, or other specific services can get you in trouble, even if you only accept jobs under the $500 limit. Advertising these services may also attract clients who assume you may be able to take on larger-scale jobs.

 

Should You Get Licensed as a Contractor in California?

One way to avoid all the headaches of the $500 rule is to seek licensure as a contractor. This allows you to take on larger-scale jobs and offer more services to your clients. You can get licensed as a contractor while still operating your handyman business and keep your existing clients. If you're ready to take your business to the next level and be a licensed contractor, here are the requirements in California:

  • Four years of experience: You must be able to show that you've been working as a handyman or journeyman for at least 4 years, either for yourself or employed by another contractor or company. The state will seek verification of your work experience, and you must provide a credible source. This source can be an employer, a supervisor, an employee, a licensed general contractor or a union representative.
  • Legal adult: You must be at least 18 years old to apply for a contractor's license. You must also be able to show a current driver's license or state identification card, as well as a Social Security number or a taxpayer identification number.
  • Proof of insurance: All handymen should be insured, and to be licensed as a contractor, you'll need to show proof of your insurance policy.
  • A contractor's bond: In California, a contractor's bond of $15,000 is required. This bond is similar to a line of credit and assures the state and potential clients that you have the backing to cover any legal issues, payments to employees and subcontractors, and any other costs that may crop up.
  • Passing scores on required exams: Yes, some written tests are required for licensure. These can include topics on business and the legalities of handiwork and contracting, as well as trade-specific tests like plumbing or electric work. The test will check your competency and knowledge of general contracting topics. In California, the exam consists of multiple choice questions and allows you three hours to complete.
  • License fees: In California, licensing fees cost $330 for the initial application and an additional $200 after you complete the tests.
  • Cleared from probation or parole: To apply for a California contractor's license, you may not be currently on parole or probation.

Meeting all of the requirements and becoming fully licensed means you can take on jobs that you couldn't before as just a handyman. It does take some work and some extra capital, but it can help your business grow, attracting bigger jobs and more clients.

Contractor's License Renewal

Once you are licensed as a contractor in California, you will need to keep your license current with regular renewals. Generally, you'll need to renew your license and pay a fee every two years. The fees for renewal depend on whether your license is active or inactive and if it has already expired. Each time you renew your license, make sure that all the information, including your name, your business name, and address, are all current on your application.

Specialty Contractor vs. General Contractor

It's important to note the difference between a general contractor and specialty contractors too. A general contractor often oversees a larger project and may use different specialty contractors as subcontractors to help complete the job. Specialty contractors can also be hired on their own for a more specialized project, such as roofing or plumbing. In California, there are 42 different types of specialties for contractors, and each one has its own testing and other requirements to become licensed. As a contractor in California, you can offer more than one type of specialty as long as you meet the requirements and are licensed in each specialty.

 

Have Questions? Contact Business Consumer Alliance Today

Business Consumer Alliance is dedicated to helping small businesses and contractors of all types grow their businesses and connect with customers. We are a non-profit organization and provide several additional services, resources, and benefits including:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Legal advice
  • Arbitration services
  • Help collecting on invoices
  • Help with HR
  • Business advice

We help customers and contractors match up with each other and assist contractors with all kinds of issues and questions. Wherever you are in becoming a contractor or building your business, whether your projects are big or small, Business Consumer Alliance can assist you. Contact us today with any questions you have — we are happy to help!

About Business Consumer Alliance Business Consumer Alliance (BCA) is a non-profit company that started in 1928. The broad purpose of BCA is to promote business self-regulation. BCA's mission is achieved by assisting consumers in resolving complaints with businesses and using that complaint information, along with other relevant information such as customer reviews, to forecast business reliability. With community support, BCA can identify trustworthy and ethical businesses and warn the public to avoid unscrupulous businesses whose purpose is to defraud the marketplace. BCA also helps businesses promote themselves by providing services and tools to protect their business and reach out to their customers. BCA obtains its funding from member businesses who support the mission and purpose of the organization and who agree to abide by high standards of ethical business practices.