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Telemedicine for Home Repairs?

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In the middle of March, as Americans retreated to their homes to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Rachael Quinn Egan discovered how long her family could live without a functioning washing machine.

When the family’s 6-year-old machine broke down, Ms. Egan, a writer in Montclair, N.J., did what any reasonable person would do in such a situation: She told her children — ages 12, 14 and 21 — to wear their clothes until they started to smell. “The kids were like, ‘Wow, maybe we don’t even need to shower?’” said Ms. Quinn, 52. “We can live with this.”

Ms. Egan didn’t want to bring a repairman into her house and risk contracting or spreading Covid-19. So she decided to delay the repair. She wasn’t the only one.

In March and April, handymen and other home-repair providers saw a sharp drop in business as homeowners delayed all but the most urgent jobs. Stay-at-home orders allowed for essential home repairs, but not all states defined which problems qualified as essential, leaving contractors and homeowners to make those judgment calls. In many cases, unless the roof was leaking or the basement was flooded, homeowners opted to wait it out.

In May, as the lockdowns began to relax, calls from homeowners started coming in again. Now handymen, repairmen, plumbers and electricians are gearing up as homeowners start tackling months of deferred maintenance.

Homes, particularly ones that are getting more use than normal, need tuneups. Appliances break. Drains clog. Air filters need to be changed. An April survey by Hippo Insurance found that a third of Americans needed home repairs while sheltering in place.

“You’re using everything a lot more and so naturally you’re going to have more problems in the house,” said John Kitzie, chief executive of HomeServe North America, which sells home-repair protection plans. Boredom also plays a role: Wash your hands 20 times a day in the slow-draining bathroom sink, and it’s hard to ignore the problem.

For Ms. Egan, the “wear it, don’t wash it” laundry plan didn’t last long. So she and her husband, Mark Egan, who works in finance, descended into their unfinished basement and lifted the lid on an unused 50-year-old Maytag washing machine left by the previous owners. (The broken one was in a second-floor laundry room.) The Maytag was black with dirt inside, and centipedes crawled out of the soap dispenser, like a scene from a horror movie.

“It was so revolting, I was screaming,” Ms. Egan said. “It seemed like it had started its own personal ecosystem.”

Mr. Egan cleaned out the machine and turned it on. Surprisingly, it worked, although the clothes came out with a musty odor. But by the middle of April, the upstairs machine began leaking water from the back, even though it wasn’t in use, and the house began to smell of mold. Ms. Egan decided she’d had enough.

In early May, she called a local appliance company and ordered a new washing machine. The deliverymen arrived wearing masks and gloves. Ms. Egan asked them to spray their shoes with disinfectant. Carrying a heavy washing machine up a flight of stairs is hard work, and Ms. Egan worried about all the heavy breathing. “I felt badly for them, too,” she said of the workers. “I don’t know if we should be putting other people at risk.”

But once the washer was installed, and no one fell ill, Ms. Egan was relieved to have her laundry room back in working order.

Many contractors have put protocols in place for safely entering a home. Ron Potesky, who owns a Mr. Handyman franchise in Springfield N.J., with his wife, Christina Langdon, sends workers into homes with gloves, masks and disposable booties over their shoes. They also sanitize their van, tools and work area with a peroxide-based cleaner.

On the day of the job, Mr. Potesky asks the homeowner if anyone in the house has been sick recently. And his workers stay home if they feel unwell. He suggests that household members stay in a separate room and leave a clear path with doors open for workers. Homeowners should also open windows in the rooms where work will be done to increase ventilation, and wipe down surfaces that were touched after the service call.

“We have to think about the customer, but we also have carpenters who may be in their 50s. They’re as worried about going into homes” as customers are about them coming in, Mr. Potesky said. Despite the persistent anxiety, call volume from potential customers is now back to about 80 percent of normal, he said, after it “fell off a ledge” in March.

Sometimes, homeowners just need advice. Can the drip wait, or will it cause lasting damage? Or, what is that strange clanging noise in the walls, and can anything be done to make it go away? So just as telehealth has replaced the doctor’s office, some home repairs have gone virtual, too.

HomeServe and Hippo have set up free virtual house calls available to anyone, not just current customers. In March, two Harvard Business School students started Dwelling, a website where homeowners can get a free diagnosis of their issue by uploading photographs and descriptions of the problem for a technician to review. And Streem, a virtual platform that connects contractors with homeowners remotely, has experienced “exponential growth” since stay-at-home orders were enacted, according to Ryan Fink, the president of Streem, which is owned by the home-protection plan provider Frontdoor.

“When Covid hit, it was all hands on deck,” Mr. Fink said. “In order for these contractors to stay in business, they need a solution like ours to go virtually into the home.”

Over a video call, a contractor can look at the dials on a water heater or at the inside of a dishwasher and potentially diagnose a problem, maybe even giving the homeowner enough information to fix it without needing an in-person appointment.

A few weeks after stay-at-home orders were enacted in New York, Jeff Lai started paying closer attention to a small leak in a screened-in porch in the Dobbs Ferry house he shares with his wife, Emily Wood, 39, and their two children. For the past year, the roof of the porch had leaked whenever it rained. But Mr. Lai didn’t pay much attention until he was home every day during a particularly wet spring. “It’s one of those problems that are so easy to ignore or procrastinate” about, he said.

Mr. Lai, 41, a graphic designer, texted and called a few contractors who’d previously done work on the house, which was built in 1865. “We’re begging people to help us, to take our money,” he said. But no one responded to his messages. A co-worker suggested he call Hippo’s hotline.

Over a video call, the representative referred Mr. Lai to local contractors who could repair the porch roof. But since the problem isn’t urgent, Mr. Lai hasn’t called any of them yet, as he is worried about how to safely let workers onto his property. “We’re motivated to fix it,” he said, but with so much uncertainty, it’s hard to know when or how to take the next step. “It’s not so easy to plan.”

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