Business Setup

Who is Required to Have a City Business Tax Certificate?

If you do work within the city limits, where ever you are, there is probably a business license requirement.

Here is a quote from the City of Santa Rosa’s website:

 “Any person whose business is located in the city or conducts business in the city must apply for a business tax certificate within 30-days of the date the business commences. Conducting business in Santa Rosa without a business tax certificate can result in penalties, violation notices, citations and court action.  Whether you’re operating from home or a storefront, office or industrial park, you’ll need a Business Tax Certificate.”

As you can see, cities are anxious to register your business and collect a business tax!  Is your city the same?  Fortunately these taxes are usually very small but they do require some extra paperwork.

Go to your city’s website or call your city hall.  If you’re required to have one, bite the bullet and get it for every city in which you will be doing business.

Do I Need to Have a Catchy Name for My Handyman Business?

If you’re interested in selling your business down the road you will want to have a catchy name.  It would be pretty tough to sell Jim Smith’s Handyman Service to Jenny Jones!

But there are some downsides.  Using a fictitious name (any name that isn’t your given name) will cost you some extra money.  Once you’ve chosen the name you’ll be required to register that name with the local authorities and to pay to publish the announcement of the name.  You’ll probably want to have a logo to go along with your new name too and that could mean additional expenses.

This is the route that I chose to take, but in retrospect I could have just used my given name and added “Handyman” as my title.  Besides saving on the cost of the filings and the extra time involved getting the paperwork together, I wouldn’t be on every credit card company’s mailing list under my business name!

Regardless of the name you choose, business cards are a must.  There are some great online print sources for professional looking cards listed on the Resources and Helpful Links section my website: SensibleHandyman.com.  You can lay out the cards online to save on graphics fees.

Order plenty of cards and give them out to everyone you know.  When someone asks for my card I always give them three so they have one to keep and two to pass on.

What About Preliminary Notices and Mechanics Liens?

Here is a definition for you:  A Preliminary Notice contains language which describes the details of the contract and who the interested parties are to the transaction.  It also makes a statement to the property owner that a mechanics lien could be placed on the subject property, what the consequences of such a lien placement are, and what their remedies would be.  The placement of a Mechanics Lien helps to ensure that you receive payment for your services.  The owner of the property will not have clear title until the lien is released.

I’ve never filed a Preliminary Notice or a Mechanics Lien for work that I’ve done as a handyman.  Would I be sorry that I hadn’t?  Yes, if I’d done work for a homeowner or a contractor and never got paid!

As a handyman, we continually work under the assumption that we will be paid for the work that we do.  If payment is never received, the homeowner has great leverage against us.  It is usually impossible to repossess the work that we did.

A Mechanics Lien is our way of insuring that we receive payment.  The Preliminary Notice is the first step in the process and it lets the homeowner know that a Mechanics Lien could be filed.  This in itself is often sufficient to prompt the homeowner to pay for the work making the actual filing of the mechanics lien unnecessary.

Check your local authorities for details.  Each state has its own filing requirements, time restrictions and laws.

Does the Truck I Drive Really Matter?

Ford Ranger with Magnetic Signs and Roof Rack

Yes!  A handyman’s truck should tell the world that they are dealing with a reasonably priced professional.  It should indicate to your customers that the owner is clean, organized, efficient, and serious about their work.

Buy a good used truck or a basic new truck like I did.  Don’t get anything too flashy because it will make you look too successful.  Better to be simply clean and reliable.  A little extra fuel economy doesn’t hurt either (I drive about 1,200 miles per month).

The picture shows my truck.  I carry nearly all of my tools with me.  This has proven to be a good practice because it enables me to do the unexpected job and reduces the “I don’t have the right tool” frustration factor.  In order to do this, I needed a truck with a shell or a tool van.  As you can see, I chose a small pickup with a standard shell and a small rack on the roof.

The disadvantages of my set up are probably clear to you.  First, the rack on top is too light to carry large lumber loads.  A standard rack would have been a better choice.  I continue to manage with this small rack but I am often pushing tools aside in the bed to make room for lumber.

Next, the camper shell should have been a workman’s shell with side access to the bed.  That would save a lot of crawling into the bed to retrieve items stored toward the front of the vehicle.  A workman’s shell would also be more secure with stronger locks and no windows.

What Tools Do Handymen Need?

You don’t need a long list of tools!  To get my business off the ground I bought one of the 4-piece, 18 volt cordless tool sets. When combined with the small box of tools I already owned, I was in business!  It was that easy.

The tools you need will be dependent on the types of work you take on. Here is my tool collection:

I carry these tools in the truck with me at all times:

  • 6 ½” Cordless Circular Saw
  • 3/8” Cordless Drill
  • Cordless Reciprocating Saw
  • Cordless Flashlight
  • Detail Sander
  • Corded Planer
  • Cordless Shop Vacuum
  • Corded Circular Saw
  • Corded Jig Saw
  • 6’ Step Ladder
  • 8” and 36” Levels
  • Stud Finder
  • Continuity Tester and Volt/Amp Meter
  • Hacksaw
  • Miter Saw and Block
  • Tool Belt
  • Eye and ear protection, dust masks, knee pads and latex gloves.
  • A small 5 drawer tool cabinet with all the common hand tools including a hammer, screw drivers, pliers, chisels, files, squares, wrenches, vise grips, tin snips, Allen wrenches and paint scrapers.  The top drawer has compartments and a lid so it can carry all of the nails, screws, drywall inserts, wire nuts and most of the other miscellaneous small parts that I need.  The second drawer holds all of my screwdrivers while the third drawer carries wrenches, pliers and drill bits.  The next drawer has sandpaper, files, scrapers and spare blades.  The deeper bottom drawer holds my hammer, squares, super bar, cat’s paw and a pouch with my continuity tester and stud finder.  This small chest has proven to be the perfect tool box to keep me organized and it is not too heavy to lift in and out of the truck.
  • A tool box with painting supplies.
  • An additional tool box with tools for plumbing.
  • Large covered plastic storage bin to carry all of the extra parts that tend to accumulate.
  • Three 5 gallon buckets.  One holds tubes of caulk and adhesives, another holds anything too long to fit in the tool box and the last bucket is for trash!  I also carry a can of Latex Primer and a roll of paper towels at all times.
  • 50’ Extension Cord

These tools I carry as needed:

  • 4’ and 8’ Step Ladders
  • 20’ Extension Ladder
  • 48” Level
  • Collapsible Saw Horses
  • 10” Chop Saw
  • Cordless Finish Nail Gun
  • Plunge Router
  • 2650 PSI Pressure Washer
  • Lawn Mower
  • Trimmer
  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Post Hole Digger

Don’t let a lack of tools keep you from getting started as a handyman.  Using the money you earn along the way, build your tool collection as the needs arise.

Here are all of my small hand tools.

When Should I Rent Tools Instead of Buying Them?

A Rent vs. Purchase Case Study: A pressure washer is readily available from an equipment rental yard.  The first time I needed one, in order to save on the rental fee, I borrowed a pressure washer from another handyman.  He instructed me in all the intricacies of getting it started.  After pulling the cord about 20 times and fiddling with the controls, it finally started and I got the job done.  Whew!

The next time, I rented a machine at a cost of $60.  It also proved difficult to start, but even worse, after about 10 minutes it quit and refused to start again!  I hauled it back to the rental store for a replacement and finally finished the job.  It took me twice as long as I had planned.  Time lost equals money lost.

I decided to buy my own machine.  Purchased online it arrived at my doorstep for about $400.  It was shiny and new and had a Honda engine.  That engine started on the first pull and has never let me down.

Rent vs. buy?  If you need the machine frequently, buy it.  Think of it as an investment instead of an expense!  If you’re only going to use a machine once or twice a year, rent it and cross your fingers.

I have recovered the cost of my pressure washer by charging a $45 machine fee on every pressure washing job I do.  The fee covers gas, maintenance and wear and tear. You could easily do the same with any specialized equipment that you use.

What Jobs Are Handymen Being Asked To Do?

Here is a partial list of the jobs I completed over a recent 4 month period.    I’m sure that you will be asked to do the same types of work:

  • Installed phone extension line
  • Hauled old wood and irrigation pipe to the dump
  • Repaired and replaced broken sprinkler heads
  • Sealed cracks in brick walkway
  • Bleached and stained deck
  • Installed closet pulls
  • Painted gutters and downspouts
  • Moved furniture from room to room
  • Repaired a fence post and gate
  • Cleaned gutters
  • Installed linoleum floor tiles
  • Repaired a water-damaged bathroom floor
  • Patched, textured and painted sheetrock
  • Installed bathroom window coverings
  • Replaced damaged window trim
  • Replaced weather-stripping on front door
  • Installed tubular skylights
  • Touched-up paint on popcorn ceiling
  • Power washed house in preparation for painting
  • Repaired damaged commercial fascia boards
  • Installed new kitchen drawer slides
  • Replaced damaged baseboard
  • Hauled a couch and old cupboards to dump
  • Power-washed and applied stain to decking
  • Installed earthquake strapping for water heater
  • Painted a garage door
  • Repaired drip irrigation system
  • Built a short flagstone walk
  • Spread bark and pea gravel
  • Stripped, sanded and painted damaged fascia boards
  • Mowed and weeded for bi-weekly client
  • Installed a ceiling fan
  • Replaced a bathroom faucet
  • Replaced an attic ventilator fan
  • Completed Section 1 dry rot repairs at the base of a shower
  • Sanded, primed and painted an outdoor railing
  • Painted walls and trim, repaired closet doors
  • Fabricated and installed missing clip for fireplace doors
  • Installed a wall air conditioning unit
  • Stabilized loose thresholds
  • Replaced leaking outdoor faucet
  • Replaced rotted wooden ramp
  • Built new stairway for a deck
  • Replaced screening for door and window
  • Painted a bedroom
  • Laid a moisture barrier in crawl space
  • Installed grab bars in a shower
  • Installed smoke detectors
  • Cut and installed dowels for sliding windows
  • Replaced worn out door hardware
  • Replaced washing machine supply valves
  • Removed and disposed of a large metal awning
  • Disassembled and disposed of a huge garage shelving unit
  • Cleaned gutters and installed gutter guard
  • Reattached drooping heat duct in a crawl space
  • Hung 2 large paintings on a high wall over a staircase
  • Hooked up washer and dryer units
  • Replaced wax ring and secured toilet
  • Installed air hose system for a furniture repair shop
  • Dry rot repairs on a front porch pillar
  • Installed a new lock on a gate
  • Corrected an installation of irrigation valves done by another handyman
  • Replaced roof on a 14’ diameter redwood water storage tank
  • Replaced a room thermostat
  • Built and installed a new door for hot tub
  • Sanded and stained a shelving unit
  • Repaired paneling on a water damaged patio
  • Painted front trim and front door
  • Replaced worn out toilet valve
  • Replaced buckling siding and referred client to a foundation specialist
  • Installed a new threshold
  • Installed kitchen base molding
  • Removed and replaced blower motor for a church pipe organ
  • Replaced an inefficient light fixture
  • Caulked around a tub, shower, sink and toilet
  • Added a new porch light
  • Re-hung a loose chandelier
  • Adjusted sticking closet doors
  • Installed a new front screen door
  • Installed a new mailbox and post
  • Painted garage walls
  • Caulked dissimilar joints around exterior of house
  • Built and installed a bathroom shelf
  • Rat-proofed the perimeter of a home
  • Built a chicken coop

Should I Specialize in One Type of Work?

After viewing the long list of projects above, you might be motivated to specialize in one particular type of work. I have been tempted to specialize because it is challenging to do so many different types of work.  On some jobs I find myself learning as I go and having to excessively focus on avoiding mistakes or wasting materials.

When you specialize in a particular area you gain economies of scale on your materials purchases. This improves your profit margins.  At the same time you minimize the cost of tools and equipment needed.  The work that you do becomes second nature and the learning curve for your helpers shortens.

Choose a specialty that has high demand and that you enjoy.  Your biggest challenges and your best earnings come when tackling the most demanding jobs in your area of expertise.  These are the jobs that only you, the expert, can do. Pest repairs, pressure washing, painting, landscaping, disaster preparedness, alternative energy, light carpentry, fence repairs, telephone and network wiring or home theater wiring are just a few examples.

Should I Incorporate My Handyman Business?

What legal business structure should I choose?  The three most commonly chosen legal business structures are Sole Proprietorship, Limited Liability Company (LLC), and S Corporation.  Because I am not a lawyer or a tax attorney I am not qualified to recommend one structure over another.  I can only tell you what I have done and strongly recommend that you consult with an attorney and an accountant before making your final decision.

I chose the simplest and most basic structure you could set up, with all of its benefits and pitfalls – the Sole Proprietorship.  As a Sole Proprietor income is reported on the individual income tax return (1040, Schedule C) so there is very little additional paperwork.  If you choose this option you represent the company legally and fully and you are personally liable for all debts and actions of the company.  If something went drastically wrong with a job you completed your assets could be at risk.  This makes it very important to carry sufficient liability insurance.

I suggest you seriously consider forming an LLC, particularly if you have a lot of personal assets and/or will be hiring employees.  Since the handyman trade could be considered a high risk industry, many handymen choose this option.  This structure affords the members (owners) the liability protection of a corporation.  Unfortunately, this liability protection may not be complete as you could still be held personally liable for your actions if you have signed a personal guarantee.  Personal guarantees are often required by banking institutions if you get a business loan.

A third option, often chosen by contractors is the S Corporation (Small Business Corporation).  This structure allows the profits to be taxed in a way similar to a Sole Proprietorship avoiding the double taxation problem inherent to the corporate system.  As with the LLC, the presence of a personal guarantee would leave the owners personally responsible for debts.

For inexpensive legal advice I became a member of Pre-Paid Legal Services.  This is an extremely low cost legal service that I have found to be a great asset.  For less than $20 per month you have legal advice that is just a phone call away.  It’s a lot like having a lawyer on your payroll!  Pre-Paid Legal associates are easy to find and they will be glad to sign you up.

About Record Keeping and Taxes

Federal income taxes, state income taxes, city business license tax, sales tax, payroll taxes, wow!  Taxes and recordkeeping can be quite a load.

Your record keeping will make or break your business success.  Setting your books up correctly from the start will make everything easier when it becomes time to prepare your taxes.

Here are some keys to success:

  1. Open a separate checking and savings account for your business.
  2. Get a new visa card strictly for your business use.
  3. Keep all of your receipts, job invoices and bank statements.
  4. Purchase a box of file folders to store your receipts, invoices and bank statements.  Keep them in a file drawer or file storage box organized one folder for each month.
  5. Keep separate files for insurance, sales tax, business taxes, and licensing.
  6. Maintain mileage logs reflecting odometer readings and job names.
  7. Use a computer based bookkeeping system and set up your chart of accounts as shown below.
  8. Keep on top of your bookkeeping.  Don’t let it pile up!
  9. Be aware of the different sales tax rates you may have in your area.  In my immediate vicinity there are four different sales tax rates.  Because of this, I keep track of my sales by area. This helps tremendously when the time comes to complete the sales tax return!

I do all my own bookkeeping and file the returns myself.  I use Quicken® because it is inexpensive and easy to use.  Any bookkeeping system should help you successfully track income and expenses and easily complete your taxes.

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