If you’re planning on becoming a professional contractor or handyman, and then starting a business, it’s important to understand which licensing laws apply in your city and state. One violation and your business could be fined or shut down.
The challenge is that laws may not be clear-cut about handyman and contractor licensing requirements, and they can vary significantly from state to state.
Here are some of the things you need to know about finding the necessary license and permit requirements before starting your business.
What’s the difference between a handyman and a contractor?
Before you start researching the license and permits you need to operate, you’ll need to know whether the law classifies you as a handyman or a contractor.
Starting a handyman business is an appealing prospect for someone with diverse trade skills. But what constitutes a handyman? Typically, handyman work involves small jobs, quick repairs, or work valued under a certain dollar amount, but the laws vary by state.
Contractors differ from handymen in that they are involved in major work such as commercial or residential contracting, which usually involves a bidding process. (In many cases, a state may require that a contractor first obtain all necessary licenses before submitting a bid.) Contractors also work in specialized areas such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC, gas, or asbestos/hazardous waste remediation. Contractors may be subcontractors to other companies and demonstrate the ability to self-manage a project.
What are the licensing rules and requirements for handyman work?
As a rule, most states have what’s called a “Minor work exemption” or “Handyman exemption”. This exemption defines the maximum dollar amount that a handyman can charge for a job before needing a license. It may also specify the kind of work you can do without a license.
It's important to be aware that each state has different licensing laws and criteria. In California, for example, a handyman must have a license for any job over $500 while in Arizona it’s $750. In other states, such as Texas, a handyman license is mandatory regardless of work undertaken.
Below are other considerations:
- Maximum labor and material dollar amount – If you’re working on a job that exceeds a certain amount, including labor and materials, a license may be required. In Arizona, for example, the limit is $1,000.
- Liability coverage – Some states require you have liability insurance to protect your business against lawsuits or other financial repercussions as a result of accidents or damage to a customer’s property.
- Limits to the type of work you can perform – In addition to dollar limits, your state may allow you to operate as a handyman without a license if the work meets certain criteria.
To find out about the state’s licensing requirements start by exploring your state contractor’s board website. Once you’ve found out what you need, pay attention to any regulations about how you advertise your business. If you’re unlicensed, some states require you to include this fact in your marketing or forbid advertising altogether. Furthermore, if a client asks you to do something outside the handyman scope set by your state (usually specialized work like plumbing, electrical, or HVAC), you must turn that work down.
What’s involved in obtaining a contractor’s license
If you fall into the contractor category as defined by your state’s contractors board and licensing requirements, you’ll need to prove that you are competent in your trade and pass a general contractor exam (usually on business law and your trade). Your state’s licensing board will also want to know how many years of experience you have, your competency in running everyday activities of a construction or skilled trade company, whether you have a criminal background, and your financial status.
In addition, be prepared to provide paperwork showing your registered business name and legal entity (LLC, corporation, etc.).
If you’re seeking a license for skilled trades such as electrical, plumbing, and mechanical, find out about your state’s unique licensing and examination requirements as these differ from those of a general contractor.
Once your license is granted it’s time to obtain worker’s compensation insurance, liability insurance, and a contractor’s license bond.
Don’t forget to check into local laws, licensing requirements at the county and city level should also be on your radar.
Will you incorporate or form an LLC?
Also, if you plan on forming a corporation or limited liability company for your business, make sure that your corporation or LLC has all licenses required by the state licensing boards, too. And if you are not forming a separate entity but plan on using a DBA assumed name, make sure you register that name if required by state law.
Risks of violating state licensing laws
Don’t ignore this important aspect of starting and managing your handyman or contracting business. State enforcement staff take violations very seriously and conduct routine sweeps or stings of hundreds of job sites looking for violations. They are also known to scour Craigslist ads for illegal advertising by unlicensed contractors. And if your corporation or LLC does contracting work without a license you could be held personally liable for damages arising out of a contracting job.
To ensure you understand the licensing requirements in your state, county, and town, reach out to other handymen, consult an attorney, and be sure to check out the BizFilings Contractor Business License Wizard to find the exact licenses or permits you’ll need plus direct links to the application process.