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House calls

[Times photo: Jill Sagers]
Steve Ritt, co-owner of On-Site Computer Service, installs RAM and a Zip drive to Phil Cunnagin’s home computer Tuesday. The $280 bill for the work was worth it, says Cunnagin, who admits he is a computer illiterate.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 2000

With the low prices for personal computers, computer businesses are turning from building to repairing PCs. And they have to remain nimble to survive.

Phil Cunnagin will go only so far when it comes to fixing his home and business computers: as far as a phone to have a repair service come out.

"I'm computer illiterate," said Cunnagin, who owns a real estate business in Palm Harbor. "I don't do anything but turn 'em on and off." Repairs, he said, are for "people who know what they're doing."

So when Cunnagin wanted to upgrade his home computer's memory and add a Zip drive for additional data storage, he called On-Site Computer Service. It's among several Tampa Bay area businesses that make PC repair house calls.

It cost $75 an hour, plus parts and a $29 trip charge for the work, but Cunnagin said the $280.34 bill was worth it. "It costs more, but I don't have to wait" three to seven days to get the computer back from a shop.

PC repair would seem a natural for these wired times. Just think of all those computers in home offices and family rooms waiting to crash or freeze, and all of those PC owners such as Cunnagin who would never consider cracking open a computer case to fiddle with the mysterious circuit boards and wires inside.

But bay area businesses that offer door-to-door repair say they have to be nimble to survive. Not every computer owner wants to pay for having the work done at home or do business with people they've never met and whose credentials they don't know how to check.

Then there are the problems posed for computer repair businesses by the cheap PCs that have dominated sales the past few years. Some people decide the best thing to do with a broken computer is to toss it and buy new. Some small repair shops that once custom-built PCs for consumers found their profits evaporated as major companies such as IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard offered cheaper machines.

At the same time, cheap PCs created opportunities for repair services because low-end machines tend to have more problems and more limited warranties. And as homes and businesses get second and third computers, demand for network services to connect the machines increased.

Service companies with clever names such as Geek2Go in Atlanta, the Geek Squad in Minneapolis and Beep-a-Geek in Dallas popped up across the country. The Tampa Bay area has seen more businesses making house calls since Tech Times first reported on the subject in November 1997.

"I have survived the cheap machine," said Ron Rosen of Computer Addict in Seminole, who has been in business since 1992. He still builds high-end systems for business customers, many of whom work at home and "require computers that work and that will do the job." He also does networking.

Rosen charges $45 an hour, plus a $20 trip charge to make a house call, most of which involve software glitches. "Mostly the home user will delete something that they don't know they're deleting, and ultimately cause a problem within Windows," Rosen said.

Do customers get nervous when he's working on a machine and the meter is running? "You have to use common sense as a business person," Rosen said. He usually won't put in more than two hours on a software problem, he says.

Mike Scott of Network Support Group in Tampa said he is "swamped with work. I'm working plenty of overtime," with more customers now than in 1997, when he was profiled in Tech Times. His wife has joined him in the business, but Scott says adding employees is difficult because "people who have my experience want to work for themselves."

Networking makes up a lot of his work. Scott's customers include home businesses, lawyers, doctors and home users. He charges $60 an hour for existing customers, $75 an hour for new ones; he doesn't add a travel fee.

Scott still builds computers, which can take 10 hours or more to complete. The profit equals about what he would make for three hours of service work.

When it comes to repairs, Scott said consumers should consider not only the cost of the repair but how much they've invested in the machine. For someone who paid $1,000 or so for a computer, it's worth $100 to have it fixed, he said.

But even people who got their computers with rebates have an incentive to fix their machines, Scott said. For one thing, they're usually tied to a three-year contract for Internet access, whether the machine is working or not.

"What good is a computer unless you can get that computer to do what you want it to do?" Scott said. "If it's not working right, the machine is an expensive paperweight."

Ken Fischer at On-Site Computer Service in Largo has seen a lot of changes in his business since it started in 1988. "It's adapt or die in this business," Fischer said. "It's very difficult to survive."

Fischer remembers when people just stopped buying new computers because there wasn't a new hardware gadget or operating system to entice them. "The entire market is capable of going flat in a heartbeat and staying flat for three months," Fischer said. And if a business had high overhead and slumping sales, it was a recipe for a disaster.

So he adapted when cheap PCs squeezed profits.

"We don't focus on sales anymore," Fischer said. "We'd rather fix a machine than sell a machine. . . . Service is where it's at."

Fischer once had 11 employees; now he has five, a reduction made possible because he concentrates on service. "Now each employee brings in probably twice the profit than we had when sales were twice as much with hardware," he said.

On-Site serves mainly business customers but also will make house calls for consumers. It charges $75 an hour for a house call, with a $29 trip charge in Pinellas County. It charges $105 hour for network services. While unplugging everything might be a hassle, the hourly rate for work brought into Fischer's shop drops to $49 an hour.

Steve Ritt, Fischer's partner, made the visit to Cunnagin's house. It should have taken about an hour, but it ran to 90 minutes because the machine wouldn't boot up once the memory and Zip drive were installed. The problem turned out to be a faulty memory chip, and Ritt charged Cunnagin only for an hour.

"What really eats our lunch is bad parts," Ritt said. He says bad parts not only cost him time but also erode customers' confidence. Ritt estimates that as many as 30 percent of some parts can be faulty, particularly motherboards, video cards and network cards.

Cunnagin has been an On-Site customer for several years. "They're the only company I've ever used," he said.

Referrals are a common way for the repair shops to gain customers, but that requires building up a client list.

By day, Mark Boyle works as a service manager in a car repair shop. On nights and weekends, he hits the road for his Computer Junkie Mobile Service. He charges $40 an hour to make a house call and says most of his business is from referrals.

Boyle would like to expand his repair business, but he needs a regular paycheck. "Some weeks it's great," he said. "But there's a lot of lean times. It's not consistent."

Veterans of the home computer repair business said consumers are right to be skeptical about who they're dealing with, especially because so many small computer businesses fail.

"I've seen 'em come and go," said Rosen of Computer Addict. "Everybody's a computer tech in this world, it seems. The truth is everyone thinks they're a computer tech until the real problems arise. I'm still here, but 70 percent come and go."

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