Dial-a-handyman services give repair estimates or talk homeowners through making fixes themselves

Early in the pandemic, the lights in the room of David Cohen’s son stopped working. After some troubleshooting, Cohen thought the problem stemmed from a faulty circuit breaker. Unsure of how to do the job himself, he called his handyman, Peter Rose, owner of the Home Hero, for advice.

“I did a little reading online, and it looked like it wasn’t an impossible job to do, and I feel comfortable with basic electrical jobs,” recalled Cohen, a Drexel law professor who lives in Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood. “I called Pete and he said he’d walk me through the basics. He warned me about the risks involved.”

Cohen had been using the company for many years, having them do assorted jobs including replacing a vanity, a windowsill, and grout. He texted pictures of the circuit breaker, so Rose could tell him what parts to buy and scheduled another phone call.

“It wasn’t something I took lightly because it involved the electricity to the entire house, but I was able to do it safely,” Cohen said. “It was actually a very easy fix that took about five minutes, and I was able to change the breaker on my own. To this day, that breaker has been working great.”

Most homeowners hire a professional for home maintenance and repairs, with those who choose the DIY route relying on YouTube and other sites for help. More than one-third of Americans are unable to perform basic home maintenance without the internet, determined a 2019 survey by Big Rentz, an equipment rental company headquartered in Irvine, Calif.

» READ MORE: DIY or hire a contractor for your home renovation? Here’s how to decide.

Cohen’s electrical issue came at a time when many folks were wary of having service people in their homes, but the Home Hero had begun working with customers virtually before the pandemic. In business for 12 years, the Center City-based company moved to virtual estimates about four years ago.

“I could drive around and see five estimates in a day in person, but now I write anywhere from 20 to 30 estimates a day virtually,” Rose said. “It’s so much more efficient. People submit photos, or we have a phone call or FaceTime chat, and then we get the estimates back to them within 24 hours.”

Initially, some customers were hesitant, preferring to have a service provider come into their home to actually see the job at hand. That sense of discomfort changed with the pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, 40% of people asked how we could estimate a job when we weren’t there,” Rose recalled. “Once the pandemic hit, that number fell to about 20%.”

Occasionally, a job presents differently from what the technician expected, leading to a revised estimate or allowing the customer to opt out.

Though these days it would be unusual for the Home Hero to talk a client through a riskier job such as Cohen’s, three or four times a month it offers virtual advice for simple jobs. That might include resetting the garbage disposal, changing a smoke detector battery, or choosing the right lightbulb.

“When a customer requests something that is pretty simple and not worth the cost of dispatching a technician, and the customer is confident that they have some skills, we’ll give them free advice on how they can handle it themselves,” he said. “It’s in the interest of keeping our customers happy, and it’s usually not cost effective to come out for a tiny thing.”

» READ MORE: 12 home improvements you can do for less than $100 each

To accommodate homeowners who are comfortable with DIY fixes, Hippo, a home insurance company focused on preventative care, created Hippo Home Care in 2020. The service is free to policyholders to help customers identify and resolve issues before they became major headaches.

“During the pandemic, everyone was stuck in their home, putting a lot of wear and tear on the house,” said Chris Janiak, a home care expert with the company. “People were cautious about having a specialized vendor come to their house.”

Janiak handles 50 to 70 calls a week, on average, and often more when there’s a big storm. To get started, click on “Get Expert Help” on hippohomecare.com to book a time for one of Hippo’s experts to talk though and troubleshoot home maintenance or repairs by phone or video.

Their biggest requests include plumbing leaks, appliance issues, trips of the ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) breaker, garbage disposal jams, and constantly running toilets. A typical call takes 15 to 20 minutes. Many times, the representative provides a list of parts customers need to buy and schedules another call once those parts are in hand.

“Having someone who can almost be your YouTube video, on the phone with you, gives you that extra guidance,” Janiak said. “I can also tell you about other things around your house with this seasonal home maintenance checklist, like reminding people to change their filters every three months.”

When an issue can’t be fixed over the phone, perhaps involving a roof, he can recommend a professional in the area.

For Cohen, having a professional behind him was key: “To have someone I trusted walk me through it and confirm that I could do it gave me the confidence to go ahead.”

This story has been amended to correct who is eligible for free Hippo services.

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