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How LIers are getting home repairs done amid the coronavirus pandemic

Christine Hachman renovating her home in 2019. Local

Christine Hachman renovating her home in 2019. Local contractors are now offering remote help with DIY projects. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Soon after New York declared nonemergency construction a nonessential service on March 27, many Long Island homeowners wondered how they would deal with the day-to-day problems of maintaining a house. How would they get someone to fix that leaky faucet, or broken toilet, or malfunctioning air conditioner?  Companies were barred from working on anything that didn't affect health or safety.

Well, they could just Ask Ken.

Though the COVID-19 coronavirus was not the inspiration for the app that lets users video chat with home repair experts, it might well have been.

Long Island-based entrepreneur Jeff Saliture, 35, developed the app, which uses a FaceTime-type interface and is tailor-made for touch-free home fixes, after renovating his Oyster Bay home several months ago.

“One of the things that I was doing here was FaceTiming with different tradesmen and contractors when there were things I thought I could just do myself,” Saliture explains. “They could just help me through it.”

Likening the app to “telemedicine for home repairs and DIY projects,” Saliture notes that once you download the free Ask Ken app, you can choose from a list of categories.

“What our system does is put out a call to all the experts who have identified that area of expertise,” Saliture explains. “And all of their phones will ring in parallel and the first expert to answer the phone gets the call.”

Ask Ken has a roster of 39 experts working in various categories, including alarms, computer and TV repairs, heating, roofing, plumbing and electronics. Customers are charged a $40 to $55 service fee, 80% of which goes to the contractor, who can also receive tips.  

“We wanted to make it so my parents can use it. It’s as easy to use as Uber,” says Saliture, adding that customers can switch from audio to video.

Countering coronavirus

The app is one of several home repair services that are adapting to a shutdown and construction freeze intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 that leaves homeowners anxious about potential maintenance issues — with no easy way to address them.

The governor’s order does state that emergency construction work that would protect the health and safety of occupants could still proceed, as can projects that would be unsafe to leave unfinished and if the work is being done by a sole worker on a job site. The state order permits maintenance of dishwashers, washer/dryers and refrigerators, HVAC tuneups and alarm system management. But it is rare to see a handyman on site.

“As I’ve looked around, I do see people working,” says Jake Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Contracting of Glen Cove. However, his roofing, painting, kitchen and bathroom renovation business is almost at a standstill, he says.

“People have got to make a living,” says Jarvis, 64. “They got to pay their bills, pay their rent, mortgage and everything else. But, legally, no contractors are supposed to be working right now.”

Regardless of the new rules, Jarvis maintains that he’d respond to an emergency.

“If you called me and you had a tree on your house, I don’t care what the rules are, I would go out and I would get a chain saw and have my guys take it out and fix it and stop the water from coming into your house,” says Jarvis, adding, “I’m a fireman and I help people.”

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, some people have put home renovation projects on hold.

Jacob Rohrbach, for example, decided to put off finishing the work on the floors of his East Meadow home, which would have entailed having contractors in his home and going out to get the necessary materials.

“The kids are home now, so it would be very hard to do any work, especially in the main part of the house and flooring,” says Rohrback, a 39-year-old pilot.

“Obviously, people don’t want you in their home,” says Steve Alexander, who owns the Nassau County franchise for the national Mr. Handyman chain, which does all manner of home repair, from mounting televisions to installing Sheetrock.  “The only way we’ve been operating is really exterior jobs, in order to minimize contact and minimize the spread of the virus.”

These days, Alexander’s work has been limited to constructing patio furniture sets, reattaching siding, roof tiles and aluminum trim.

“We want to protect our guys,” says Alexander, 38. “We want to make sure they stay safe, they’re not bringing anything into someone’s home and they’re not leaving with something from someone’s home. We’re keeping our distance. We’re putting our best practices in place so that people have as little contact with my technicians.”

“Some clients get cold feet, either because of the economy or the virus itself,” says Shawn Jarrett, owner of SJM Title & Masonry of Franklin Square. “They either put work on hold or are considering not doing it at all at the moment.”

One client, Tim Basile, planned to have SJM extend the patio and add a hot tub to his East Meadow home, but recently put the brakes on the project.

“With all the uncertainty surrounding businesses in general, we’re holding off,” says Basile, 36, a court reporter.

Once the lockdown is over and people are back at work, Basile will reassess the situation.

“I would say we’re probably not going to do all of it, but hopefully some of it, as long as things go back to semi-normal,” Basile says.

Opportunities for business

At the same time, the shelter-in-place lockdown is creating some opportunities for contractors they wouldn’t have in the normal course of events.

“What we are finding is that since more people are at home now, they are spending time outdoors and are cognizant  of work that needs to be done, such as trip hazards on a walkway which can be dangerous or issues on their stoops which need to be addressed,” Jarrett, 48, says.

Jarrett plans to make free educational videos on YouTube for DIY projects, such as re-grouting or re-caulking bathrooms.  

“This is something a lot of folks can do themselves if they’re relatively handy,” Jarrett says, adding that the extra time at home makes it easier to tackle these kinds of fixes. “The honey-do list is always there.”

Jarrett, himself, plans to paint and re-caulk the stucco of his own home’s exterior.

“Sealing to protect their exterior from water intrusion into their house is something that the average homeowner could do,” Jarrett says. “This would be the time to do a self-inspection of your home.”

A convenient way to address such issues is the Ask Ken app, which is named for Ken Ramirez, owner of "The Electrician," of Oyster Bay, who helped renovate Saliture's home.

During the virus outbreak, Ramirez has, for the most part, been helping people over the phone. If he must go out to a site, he wears a mask and gloves.

“I’ll already have an idea of the problem, because we spent time on the phone. So, I’ll ask them to give me 20 feet, not six feet,” Ramirez, 53, says, adding, “I don’t want to get up close and friendly.”

Ramirez, who currently limits his work to tasks that require only one contractor at a time at the site, has done a number of videoconferencing jobs through Ask Ken.

As Saliture sees it, the app, which went live on March 20 and has a steadily growing clientele, is here to stay  — beyond COVID-19.

“The world is ready for DIY and home repair virtual help,” Saliture says. “How is that not going to be part of the fabric going forward? I think it will be.”

What's essential and what's not

New York State’s Department of Economic Development, which regularly updates its regulations on businesses considered essential that can remain open during the coronavirus shutdown, includes the following services as essential:

  • General maintenance for the safety, sanitation and essential operation of residences
  • Landscaping for maintenance and pest control (landscaping for cosmetic purposes is considered nonessential).
  • For guidance on what is allowed, and what's not, go to the Empire State Development's page on the novel coronavirus, nwsdy.li/nyguidance

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