November-December 2011 | Suburban-ology

The Handyman Can

Who can take a lightbulb, and change it for you?

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I was hanging out in a friend’s stylish home office when a single lightbulb fizzled and died.

The bulb was in a ceiling fixture with a minimalist design that looked as if it cost extra because there was so little to it. I didn’t raise an eyebrow when my well-educated friend said she had no clue how to replace the bulb. I offered to do it.

I climbed her stepladder and fiddled with the tiny halogen bulb. It didn’t unscrew and wouldn’t pull straight out. Removing it required a complex series of maneuvers that remained inscrutable.

My friend’s Ivy League-educated colleague offered to take a turn. She came down the ladder empty-handed, too.

If my friend’s architect-husband couldn’t figure out how to remove the bulb when he came home, they’d have to call the handyman.

It sounds like the setup for a joke: How many advanced degrees does it take to change a lightbulb? More than many households inside the beltway have, apparently.

Several local “handyman” or home-management services in Montgomery County are charging homeowners more than $90 an hour to perform routine household chores, from replacing dusty furnace filters to changing lightbulbs.

“The house is a machine for living in,” the pioneering modern architect Le Corbusier once declared. Talk to local handymen and their clients and you’ll conclude that life has grown too complex for many of us to operate our machines.

“I had a client out in Potomac who had 360-something lightbulbs,” says Dan Millen, owner of Bethesda-based DMH Services. Every six months the client “would pay me to change every single lightbulb, whether they were working or not, so there was no chance any of them would ever burn out.”

Some customers’ vaulted entryways make changing a lightbulb feel like an ascent to Everest’s South Base Camp; or their stylish fixtures are so impractical that just changing bulbs requires an engineering degree.

The fixtures in Laura and Charles Curran’s home in Northwest Washington, D.C., fall into that category. “Charles and I don’t see how we would even get to the lightbulbs in the kitchen,” she says. “You have to remove something and do something tricky I’m sure.”

It’s not that the Currans don’t have heads for complicated detail. She has a doctorate in immunology from Johns Hopkins University. He has an MBA and is a venture capitalist with a professional interest in high-tech data storage.

But they call Millen to change lightbulbs and perform a host of tasks from baby-proofing their home to securing car seats. “My kids call him Uncle Dan,” she says. “To be honest, it’s very comforting to have him and his friendship. Because things go wrong all the time, and as a mother of three I need someone I can rely upon to take care of them quickly.”

Some area handymen have as many advanced degrees as their customers. They employ teams of craftsmen and perform a wide range of services, from plunging toilets to installing new kitchens. This time of year some will deliver and set up outsize Christmas trees, string holiday lights and assemble gifts that arrive in pieces.

The modern handyman’s relationship with his customers is not unlike that of the butler on an 18th-century English estate with the keys to the wine cellar and the silver cabinet.

“It’s a trust relationship,” says Jim Vagonis, owner of Hassle Free Home Services in Potomac. “We have the keys. We have the codes. We’re there to deal with your house so you don’t have to.”

Hassle Free Home Services has more than 100 area customers who pay for “proactive” monthly visits in which handymen do everything from changing furnace filters to letting in the cable guy. The monthly fee ranges from $200 to $700, depending on the size of the house and the complexity of the customer’s needs.

There are many reasons people are willing to pay. Transience has separated us from handy relatives and longtime neighbors able to fix anything. People working long hours in intensely competitive fields often have little energy for household puttering. And our culture’s increased emphasis on seeking self-fulfillment has left many homeowners unwilling to perform mundane tasks that bore them.

“I have customers who tell me: ‘I don’t know how to do it. I don’t want to know how to do it. What I’m good at is writing checks,’ ” Vagonis says.

Thus, Vagonis once found himself orchestrating a hamster funeral. “We dug a hole in the backyard, we brought the mother and kids out there and we did a funeral,” he says. “All the kids said a few words, then I covered him up in a box in the ground.”

Bethesda-based Case Design/Remodeling recently renamed its handyman division “fred”—after founder Fred Case—to present a friendly face to frazzled homeowners. “We see the home as much more complicated today than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” President Bruce Case says. Homes are bigger now, with more bathroom showers to caulk and faucets to leak, and “the kitchen is just a different room than it used to be.”

The go-go years of consumer spending on high-end appliances like warming drawers and wine refrigerators have left us with lots of costly buttons and indicator lights that can fail. “With more bells and whistles, it is harder for people to fix things themselves,” Case says.

The big winners in this economy are often those with highly specialized knowledge who’ve made money knowing one thing well. They feel no shame in lacking a broader skill set.

I have a friend who is a brilliant lawyer. He oversees multimillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions without breaking a sweat. Yet he sometimes calls me for basic home advice. When he complained a few months ago about weeds in his yard, I told him to mulch.

There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line.

“What is mulch?” he asked.

I’m pretty sure that was no joke.

April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to