A Step in the Right Direction
From Grassroot Institute, July 12, 2019
Imagine that you have a small repair job to do on your house, something that you’re not quite comfortable doing yourself, but which shouldn’t require calling in a contractor.
Maybe the most recent tropical storm managed to damage two separate screen doors and the mosquitos are enjoying unrestricted access to your living room.
Perhaps you misjudged the size of the new bookcase you were moving into the bedroom and you punched a hole in the drywall — the same wall you just painted that perfect shade of blue.
Or maybe you finally saved enough to replace the kitchen cabinet doors that your spouse hates.
None of these are big home-improvement projects, but they could each end up costing more than expected because of an obscure state law that requires property owners and managers to hire licensed contractors for any work requiring building permits or the value of which exceeds a threshold known as the “handyman exemption.”
For almost three decades, the handyman exemption in Hawaii was capped at $1,000, a limit that includes the cost of labor and materials. But in a state where the cost of everything is notoriously high, it was very easy to reach that limit even on small jobs. The result was frustration and added expense for homeowners or property managers who had to find contractors available and willing to take on such work.
It also hurt the small business handyman, who wasn’t trying to compete with the scope of work a licensed contractor can perform, but found handyman opportunities strangled by government regulation.
This year, the Hawaii Legislature revisited the handyman exemption and raised the cap to $1,500. As Mauloa Akina, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii’s newest intern, explained in a recent Honolulu Civil Beat commentary, that’s a step in the right direction. But the modest increase doesn’t solve the problem at the heart of this needless regulation.
Fixing a broken fence or repairing a few windows isn’t a profitable use of time for many contracting companies. But the handyman exemption is capped so low that property owners can’t legally go to the "right man for the job." And the stakes are even higher if it's an emergency and the work needs to be done quickly.
The rationale for the handyman exemption is that it protects consumers against work from unlicensed contractors. But there undoubtedly are ways to safeguard consumers without overregulating minor home repairs.
At a minimum, the handyman exemption should be raised to better reflect the real costs of labor and materials, if not at least the rate of inflation. A homeowner shouldn’t have to hire a contractor just to fix a fence or match the paint on a drywall patch.
The Legislature also could explore the possibility of removing spending caps completely. Instead, regulations could focus on the types of work that should be performed by only licensed professionals.
There is room to protect consumers, contractors and homeowners who need to get a few windows fixed after a storm. As in so many things, this is a place where the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii motto, “E hana kakou” (“Let’s work together”), shows us the way.
Contractors, homeowners, legislators, unions and property managers represent different interests in this issue. We simply have to work together on a reasonable compromise.
E hana kakou! (Let's work together!),
Keli'i Akina, Ph.D.