A leaking roof is among life’s more unpleasant surprises. It’s also a situation that catches homeowners unawares. Unlike property managers, most homeowners don’t budget for a new roof. What many will want to know is: since they can’t afford to replace the roof right now, can it be fixed?
Someone in this predicament soon learns that fixing the roof is not what most roofing companies do. Jesse Holencik, president of Holencik Exteriors, in Coplay, Pa., says that when he returns homeowner phone calls, people are surprised and relieved, telling him that “no one else called me back!” Holencik Exteriors responds to all calls because it has a service department born, Holencik says, of necessity. Roofing companies, he points out, all want the big job. But what people often need or can afford is a roof repair.
Many design-build remodeling companies once operated just like those roofing companies. When someone contacted them wanting, for instance, a door changed out, the homeowner was informed that the job was too small. In time, many of those companies realized that the small job was actually well worth their trouble. If priced and managed correctly, it was profitable, sometimes even highly profitable. And if it was done well, along came the request for a big job. Some companies hired a handyman or created handyman departments.
Something similar has happened in roofing. Market-savvy companies have added repair or service divisions with techs who can diagnose a problem, price it out, sell it, and, depending on the scope, perform the work then and there or come back if they need to with a helper.
In the last six years, for instance, Kearns Brothers in suburban Detroit has steadily expanded its service department. The company now operates four service crews and three admin staff to handle scheduling and booking. The department services both single-family homes and multifamily buildings. It began with the simple need to service customers, vice president Gary Kearns says. In the process, “we have established ourselves as a company that can take care of any kind of [roofing] problem.” Not just the need to put on a new one.
Roofing companies willing to fix a roof remain few. Most roofers, says Jeff Petrucci, owner of Bloomfield Construction, in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which does mostly roofing, “don’t want to mess with repairs.” Petrucci says his willingness to take them on is as much about marketing as anything. What he finds is that “if you do a $1,500 repair that no one else wants to do, you have a customer for life.”
Money on the Table
Customer acquisition is similarly the strategy at Baltimore home improvement company Brothers Services. Brothers started out roofing and now operates a full-service remodeling division with a handyman department. Along the way the company figured out how roof repairs could be both a profit center and lead generator. Roofing companies that spurn repairs, Brothers senior vice president Dave MacLean says, “are leaving money on the table.” Managed carefully, and at the right margins, repairs can be a company’s bread and butter.
Since replacing a roof and repairing one are two different activities, Brothers operates a repair division, with repair consultants trained to diagnose roof problems, create a solution, and sell that solution to the homeowner. “We do service work,” MacLean says, “but we’re going to do it like a plumber or an electrician.” That is, time and materials. Repairs can run anywhere from $450 to tens of thousands of dollars. And the guys who man the department “aren’t just roofers, but know how to do a little bit of everything.” Including sell.
Making That Call
A few factors go into deciding whether or not a roof can or should be fixed rather than replaced (see how Brothers explains it on the company website). Money is a big one. Also, how long do the owners plan to live in the home? If they’re planning to move in a year, and the roof’s aged to the point of leaks, they may have to replace the roof in order to sell the house, since active leaks must be disclosed by sellers.
And then there’s the key question of age. How old is your roof is the first question someone on the phone at Brothers will ask. If it was replaced 20 years ago with 25-year shingles, it may simply have worn out. Spending thousands to repair it could be a waste of money if replacement is needed in a year or two anyway.
In Florida, strict building codes determining what can or cannot be done when it comes to fixing vs. replacing a roof make that such a key piece of information that when homeowners don’t know, employees at Istueta Roofing in Miami will check city records to find out the last time a roofing permit was pulled at the caller’s address. What can also complicate matters is “the 25 percent rule,” notes owner Frank Istueta. “If you have to replace 25 percent or more of the roof, you have to do it all” or no permit will be issued. This rule is unique to that state’s building code (Merlin Law Group has this explanation of how it’s written and applied). The 25 percent rule can take the repair or replace decision out of the homeowner’s hands.
Facts and Conditions
Sometimes that hope that the roof can be fixed is not unreasonable. “There’s no way any roofer can tell you how much longer you have on that roof,” says Khris Reynolds, who, with Reynolds Home Improvement and Design, offers his services as a roofing consultant and inspector. “All he can do is give you the facts and conditions. I let them know the seals are broken, nails are coming through, the granules are in the gutters, and water is draining into the fascia. This is something you have to get fixed and you can do it now or you can wait. If the point of [the estimator’s] being there is to recommend a new roof, he’s not doing anyone any favors.”
Often repair and replacement are “overlapping circles,” MacLean says. Depending on circumstances, a case could be made for either. What Brothers techs are trained to do in such situations is describe the facts and give homeowners options. Let them know what the scope and cost of the repair is as well as what the cost of replacing the roof would be, so that they can weigh that information and make a decision that makes sense for the house and their pocketbook.
If It’s Obvious, It’s Obvious
Technology has simplified the roof repair business. A smart phone camera shows customers exactly where and what the problem is. “With photos, it’s open and shut,” Holencik notes. In the course of a thoroughgoing inspection, his service techs snap pictures of missing shingles, of chimneys where flashing has separated from the brick, of cracks at sewer stacks and vent pipes, places where perforations occur. Seeing is believing, so at Holencik Exteriors most calls—90 percent—become repairs.
At Kearns Brothers, “if it’s obvious, it’s obvious,” Kearns says. If it’s not, the company schedules a water test, with one guy spraying the roof while another’s inside to see where the water’s coming in.
Diagnosing a leak and estimating a repair that actually solves the problem is “a special set of skills, and not an easy one to find,” MacLean, of Brothers, says. It’s not the same set of skills that go into replacing a roof. So Brothers trains its own techs to diagnose and fix, but also to sell. “We use a sales system,” he says, to sell repairs. The system begins with a lot of questions. How long have you had the leak? When and under what conditions does it happen? “You learn,” he says, “not to assume anything.”