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No one wants to get fined just for working, but depending on where you live, unlicensed handyman work can lead to just that. Some states, such as California, have laws so stringent that they require a contracting license for any job exceeding $500 – and you can end up paying the state thousands of dollars in fines if you get caught contracting without a license.
On top of that, states that require licensing or registration for handyman work often don't legally require consumers to pay for unlicensed contracting work. So to best protect yourself, make sure you know whether you need a license.
The application process for a handyman license varies from state to state, so you'll have to check with your state's contractor board to learn the specific steps. But here's the general step-by-step process for becoming a licensed handyman:
1. Polish Your Resume
To obtain a handyman license, you'll have to prove you have experience that qualifies you to manage your business. You'll have to show that you have the necessary skills (for example, landscaping; flooring; plumbing; installation of roofs, windows, tile, drywall and lighting features) and you've been using them for a minimum number of years. You might be able to receive credit for years of experience with proof of technical or apprenticeship training, or a vocational education.
2. Apply for a License Exam
Complete a license application; proofread it; pay the processing fee; send in your application to the state licensing board.
If you qualify to take the contractor's exam, you should receive a notice to appear for the examination.
Your exam will probably be multiple-choice and cover both the logistical and practical parts of working as a handyman. For example, you might have to demonstrate knowledge of business law as well as proficiency in your trade. Obtain a study guide from the licensing board to help familiarize yourself with the exam materials.
4. Take Your Exam
You should receive instructions from the licensing board on when and where to appear for your exam. If you're unable to take it on the date or at the location provided, you can reschedule, though you may have to pay a rescheduling fee.
When you show up, arrive with your notice to appear, an ID card and any other materials you were instructed to bring. Prepare to spend a few hours on this exam.
Depending on your state, you may know whether you've passed the exam before even leaving the test site. In California, for example, test-takers who pass the exam are told on the spot, though they don't receive any further details on their performance. Test-takers who don't pass receive a statement detailing how they performed so they know what to work on before retaking the exam.
5. Provide Fingerprints and a Background Check
If your state requires licensing for contractors, it will likely also mandate that you give your fingerprints (and probably pay a fingerprint processing fee) and provide information for a criminal background review. Past convictions don't necessarily disqualify you from obtaining a license, but you may have to provide a written explanation of the conviction and evidence of rehabilitation (such as counseling or a rehabilitation program).
6. Receive Your License
Once you've passed your exam and submitted all the necessary documentation and fees, you'll be issued your contractor's license and you can begin work as a handyman safely and legally. Check in with your state's contractor board to make sure you know how to keep your license active and valid.
- Contact the National Contractor License Service with any questions or concerns about obtaining a general contracting license or the requirements for a contractor license in a specific state.
- Make sure you qualify for the license by reading the application completely.
Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, California, and she holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University.