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Growing better with age

Increasing number of seniors with specific needs sparks niche contractor businesses

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Chris Tait prepares a proposal in his home office in Manchester Township. He owns the York County HandyPro franchise that specializes in handyman services, minor repairs and residential modifications for senior citizens. Photo/Amy Spangler
Chris Tait prepares a proposal in his home office in Manchester Township. He owns the York County HandyPro franchise that specializes in handyman services, minor repairs and residential modifications for senior citizens. Photo/Amy Spangler

Chris Tait hit a fork in the road last year after losing his job.

One path was to keep working in the food distribution business. Tait has 30 years of experience in the industry and had held a vice president position in York County before the ax fell.

The other was launching a midstate franchise of Michigan-based HandyPro International LLC. The home-improvement business evolved through many years to focus on older clients and others with mobility issues.

Tait took the latter.

"What we are doing is a fraction of what it would take to put somebody into assisted living. A fraction," he said. "I've been there. Done that."

North York-based HVAC, plumbing and electrical contractor R.E. Sanders Inc. also has decided to launch a division devoted to mobility renovations.

The business helped a friend who is handicapped outfit his new home with needed features about 10 years ago, President Thomas Sanders said.

And R.E. Sanders has done a fair amount of this type of work through the normal course of business in the past, he said.

It can include anything from grab bars to improve a person's stability in the bathroom to allowing space under the kitchen sink for someone to maneuver with a wheelchair, Sanders said.

The reason, then, that the company is pulling the trigger early this year on a new division called Home Accessibility Outfitters is partly because of the economy and its effect on its core business, Sanders said.

Mobility-related home improvement is poised for growth, he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national population of people 65 years old or older went from about 35 million in 2000 to about 40 million as of April 2010.

Their ranks grew significantly faster than the general population during the period, according to the bureau.

At the same time, it is a group with specialized needs — especially if they want to stay in their own homes and be relatively independent for as long as they can.

The "senior modifications" that HandyPro offers include wheelchair ramps, bathroom remodeling and grab bars, as well as home assessments.

Keith and Debra Paul started the business after her grandmother was swindled out of about $2,000, Keith A. Paul said.

The person took money as part of a kitchen remodel and never came back, he said.

So HandyPro began as a referral service of contractors in the area for people who were looking for one.

People would call to be set up with a contractor, and a lot of customers were seeking someone specialized in smaller jobs, Paul said.

In response, the business hired someone onto the staff in 1996 to do that type of work when they couldn't find enough people to recommend, he said.

By about 2000, HandyPro had 10 technicians on the payroll.

As this niche in home improvement grew, the Pauls additionally saw the need for a business to focus on the remodeling services that seniors and others with mobility issues need.

The fact that there haven't been many competitors in this niche has come as a surprise, Paul said.

It actually would be better if there were more companies doing similar work to help get word out about this type of business model, he said.

"Competition is not always a bad thing," Paul said.

R.E. Sanders plans to launch its Home Accessibility Outfitters at the York Builders Association Home Show, which starts Feb. 7 at the York Expo Center in York County.

Sanders and Joel Moore, the company's business development director, obtained the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist designation last fall from the National Association of Home Builders.

Getting the designation was a third prong that spurred launching the new division this year, Sanders said.

It drove home the realization that so many baby boomers are reaching an older stage of life and want to age in place at home, he said.

Some companies looking at this niche are seeking to get into one or two aspects of it, Moore said.

But R.E. Sanders wants to be a one-stop shop for everything — even helping to link potential customers with money available from public agencies or other organizations, he said.

Eventually, the company sees Home Accessibility Outfitters comprising the majority of the overall company's business, Sanders said.

It wouldn't be the first time the operation has switched gears, said Roy Sanders, the company's CEO.

He is an estimator by trade for large plumbing and heating projects, but there were mouths to feed at home 40 years ago, Roy Sanders said.

Tait, the new midstate HandyPro franchise owner, said he saw first-hand the need for home modifications that could keep seniors living more independently as long as possible.

He said he had to put his father into assisted living for about $5,000 per month. The price grew to about $8,000 the month before he died, Tait said.

With his mother, the family tried professional in-home care, he said. After she died, there were items missing from her house, Tait said.

The experiences left him passionate about handling business relationships with seniors in an ethical way, he said. Tait also has a brother with special needs, and it has helped him realize mobility issues others have.

At the same time, Tait's hobby for years has been fixing up homes.

His work has included renovating a 150-year-old house outside Baltimore that was featured on an HGTV television show, Tait said.

He still wasn't totally sold on taking a leap.

Over the course of many weeks, he had researched possible businesses in the home-repair or improvement realm on the advice of a friend who encouraged him to look at franchises.

The process brought him to either the food industry offer or taking the HandyPro franchise.

He picked HandyPro over a damage-remediation business in part because his kids didn't want him potentially called out on Christmas morning, Tait said.

The same friend, with experience as a chief financial officer in the food distribution industry, framed it simply. Which choice would make Tait look back and wonder if he didn't pick it? The franchise or the food job?

On Dec. 10, Tait officially opened the local HandyPro based in his home in Manchester Township. It employs one technician.

He hopes to grow it to three by March or April, and the business already is staying busy, Tait said.

HandyPro from Central Penn Business Journal on Vimeo.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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