Everything now comes home: on-demand service apps and their teething troubles

Home services have become popular during the lockdown, but teething troubles continue

August 06, 2021 01:45 pm | Updated 01:48 pm IST

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

In March 2021, Bengaluru-based Ramya Shivaram (name changed) booked and paid a leading home services company to renovate her parents’ house. Cut to four months later. The company hasn’t finished the project or even delivered the material already paid for. “The execution team at Housejoy took more than 50% of the payment in advance and has failed to deliver. All they’ve done so far is to demolish one bathroom and have left it in an unusable condition. For the last two months, we’ve been pleading with the company to either refund the amount or deliver the materials. No action has been taken and the team refuses to acknowledge calls,” says Shivaram. There was no written agreement regarding refund or payments when the company was hired. “They only sent an email/Whatsapp message mentioning the procedure of payment. We were naive enough to believe that they would start the work once we made the payment, but they didn’t.”

Online reviews are flooded with similar complaints against this company and others as well. As reported on consumercomplaints.in, a client booked Urban Company for painting his home this July, and despite paying an advance, the company is denying him service. Elsewhere, a carpenter from Housejoy went missing after receiving money from the client to buy materials. Another client says they paid ₹10 lakh, also to Housejoy, in February 2021 for house construction but when they cancelled the project a month later, the company ignored requests for a refund. ‘The only thing provided by Housejoy till date is a 2D floorplan of my house and a soil survey report. It has been four months and no one is responding’, states the complaint posted last month.

Legal action

While Sanchari Sinha, the Project Manager for Shivaram’s project, refused to comment, founder and CEO of Housejoy, Sanchit Gaurav, acknowledged that several projects have been delayed due to pandemic-related issues. “Material costs have gone up and, in many cases, clients have reached out to us with cancellation requests as well. We are not a builder, but a service provider. A majority of refund requests have been accepted and the rest are on track — a new schedule is expected to roll out to clients next month,” he says. The company diversified into interiors, renovations, and construction in 2018. “It has been our mainstream growth for the last two years,” says Sinha. “The segment is expected to witness exponential growth and we will expand its services in 15 cities in the next six months.”

So, what legal recourse can clients like Shivaram take? If there’s delay or default or deficiency in service, customers can approach the consumer forum for refund and compensation, says S.C. Raghuram of Chennai-based Rank Associates. “The terms of contract and nature of work will have a bearing on the issue — whether the service provider gave any assurance for any period of time or whether there’s an arbitration clause in the fine print,” he adds.

Pandemic boom

Despite the many on-ground concerns, it is evident that tackling an unforeseen pandemic-like scenario was challenging for the many home-service players. Yet, their popularity hasn’t dipped. Tech-led home services companies such as Housejoy and Urban Company have actually seen a sustained surge in business. Says Santhosh Kumar, Vice-Chairman, Anarock Property Consultants: “In the pre-COVID period, even while these tech companies started at-home salon services, it was not as popular as it has grown to be now after the pandemic. Between the first and second waves, we saw a demand surge month-on-month.” As restrictions ease after the second lockdown, companies are again seeing growth in demand. “It’s almost nearing pre-Covid levels in categories like beauty or even surpassing those levels in categories like house cleaning, etc.,” says Kumar.

The market has also seen the entry of new players such as Better Home. Launched in 2020 by Balaji Kalyansundaram, the hyper-local site offers home improvement products from stores in your vicinity and “targets customers who want to do small renovations, repairs, or beautification”. Kalyansundaram says they enable stores “to become digital with thousands of branded products added to their online store in minutes.” Now piloting in Chennai, the company has onboarded over 400 stores.

Top categories

Home cleaning and fumigation services have seen high demand since the pandemic. For instance, in 2020, Urban Company launched disinfection services and, more recently, they started pilots for cooking, nail art and haircuts at home. Co-founder Varun Khaitan says they are seeing a growing demand for tech-enabled home services across Tier 1,2 and 3 cities. “The pandemic has accelerated it as people can’t step out. Salon services for men and women have seen a massive spurt, while the pandemic also offered us an opportunity to attract non-traditional customers from older age groups.”

While glass, hardware, sanitaryware, electrical, and timber products are popular at Better Home, Gaurav at Housejoy says the beauty category leads booking volumes through the year. “Home cleaning bookings are high during Diwali, while home appliances see a rise in the April-May period. Under home appliances, AC installations see greater demand, particularly in North India,” he says.

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