Remodelers Giving Back

The remodeling industry is often portrayed as a bunch of criminals preying on unsuspecting homeowners. While the industry certainly has its share of miscreants, the truth is a lot of remodelers spend a good portion of their time giving back to the industry and community.

September 30, 2007

Volunteers for the Labor of Love program, started by Allan Lutes (second from right), made this home wheelchair accessible and also made several other remodels and repairs for this family of nine adopted and foster children with special needs.  Photo by Marc Berlow

The remodeling industry is often portrayed as a bunch of criminals preying on unsuspecting homeowners. While the industry certainly has its share of miscreants, the truth is a lot of remodelers spend a good portion of their time giving back to the industry and community.

Whether it's association leadership, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, sending employees to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina or supporting myriad local programs, remodelers are involved in all types of charitable causes. Although being a good corporate citizen is rewarding, it also raises your profile in the community and can only help from a business standpoint, too.

Here are just a few remodelers that are going the extra mile. Add your input to the discussion at

Answering A Need

Allan Lutes, president of Alpha Remodeling in Ann Arbor, Mich., has been involved in community organizations for years, including church groups, the Salvation Army and more.

But he still felt he wanted to do more, which led him to create Labor of Love, a program designed to help the elderly, disabled and financially challenged in the Ann Arbor area take care of their homes.

"It was a way to fulfill a need I saw in our community that wasn't being addressed," he says. "We live in a fairly affluent community and these people are effectively invisible. Just because they're not standing out on a street corner with a tin cup doesn't mean there aren't needs."

The program consists of two parts; an annual Project Day each spring and emergency repair services throughout the year.

Labor of Love started out supported largely by the volunteer efforts of Lutes and his employees but has now been expanded to work with several local churches and other community organizations. The beneficiaries of the program are referred to it by the local social services agency.

On the annual Project Day, projects range from simple landscaping work and leaf raking to major projects, such as building handicap ramps and other remodeling projects. This year, 175 volunteers worked on 30 homes. This spring, Lutes is expecting more than 400 volunteers for the program he started only three years ago.

Beyond that, Lutes has created a database of skilled workers who can make emergency repairs during the rest of the year. When people volunteer for the program, they fill out a skills assessment form, and Lutes also reaches out to professionals through local trade associations.

"Say a roof leak comes in. We'll check the database and shoot an e-mail out to the 20 people on our list who have the skills to do that repair," he says. "Some of the contractors provide materials themselves. We're also able to get some donated, and we provide some."

Labor of Love only asks for one day a year from the volunteers for the emergency repair program to make sure they don't feel overwhelmed.

"We keep track of who is asked to do a repair and then we don't call them again for a year," Lutes says.

Although the program has now spread beyond the company, Alpha Remodeling and Lutes are still heavily involved. Up to $10,000 a year is included in Alpha's budget to help pay for the database work and buy materials. Although he doesn't require his employees to participate, Lutes estimates that about 75 percent do.

Lutes spends about five hours a week working on Labor of Love, but that number goes up to 20 hours a week leading up to the Project Day. He recently hired someone to work 10 hours a week on coordinating the program to free up some of his time.

"That's a better use of my funds than taking me away from the business," he says.

To Lutes, volunteering is something that just makes good sense for any remodeling firm.

"There are only good reasons to do work like this," he says. "It's good for your company because of how you're perceived in the community; it's good for your employees because they can feel proud of what they do; and it's good for the recipients. It's win-win in every way.

"The more of this we do, the more successful our company becomes. I have to believe there's a correlation there."

Dave and Margie Kulesza are two of the employees John McCloskey has helped buy a home. Promoting homeownership with his staff makes them better employees and encourages loyalty to the company, McCloskey says.
Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Promoting Ownership

They say charity begins at home. That's what drives John McCloskey, president of J. Francis Co., to help his employees by assisting them in becoming property owners.

"I view my company as a partnership between me and my employees," he says. "As part of my responsibility for my end of that partnership, I want them to be successful."

That's why McCloskey has helped those employees of his Pittsburgh remodeling firm that couldn't otherwise buy homes do so. Typically, these employees couldn't get a mortgage on their own, so McCloskey buys a fixer-upper, then sells it to the employee at no additional cost and holds the note. He sets up a mortgage payment schedule that matches the every-other-week pay periods for ease of budgeting and keeps the payments about the same as the rent the employee was previously paying.

"I really feel like if you spend all day fixing up people's homes, you shouldn't have to go home at night to a place you rent," he says. "This allows them to use their skills to improve their own homes."

He also allows the employees to use materials salvaged from other company projects.

"We'll redo a two-year-old kitchen with perfectly good cabinets, and this way we can find another use for them," he says. "They can rehab their homes with just sweat equity and most of the materials being provided."

Three employees have purchased homes this way, and McClosky helps employees who already own homes invest in rental properties. He's also mentored several subcontractors and helped them get started. For 20 years, he has owned a separate business where he buys, restores and rents properties. He now owns 20 rental properties, worth about $4 million.

"I've helped them become business owners by investing in rental properties," he says. "I'll walk them through the first deal and help them get going as investors."

Several of those he's mentored have become quite successful at it. His business development manager has purchased five properties and now manages a $1.5 million portfolio. One of his former carpentry subs has become so successful that he shut down his business to focus on managing his properties.

"Now I've got to find a new carpenter, but that's OK," McCloskey says. "I'm thrilled to see him building a really good financial situation for himself."

Helping his employees helps the business, McCloskey says.

"It's a real win-win situation for me," he says. "I can help people that I feel the debt of gratitude to, and it creates a lot of loyalty. People want to stick around because they're grateful that they've been able to do this kind of stuff."

More than 20 remodeling firms helped renovate the home of Army Specialist Ryan C. Major in preparation for his return from service in Iraq.  
Photos by June Stanich

Helping Returning Soldiers

A group of remodelers in Montgomery County, Md., recently completed the first project under Rebuilding Together's new Heroes at Home program. Heroes at Home, sponsored by Sears Holding Management Corp., is a program that provides repairs or renovations to homes of soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For this project, the local chapter of NARI was heavily involved, with more than 20 members participating, says David Merrick, president of Merrick Design and Build in Kensington, Md. Merrick was the "house captain" and oversaw all aspects of the remodel.

The space being remodeled was a family room over a garage that needed to be converted into a bedroom for Army Specialist Ryan C. Major. Major was injured in November 2006 when an improvised explosive device detonated while he was on foot patrol with his unit in Ramadi, Iraq. Major had both legs amputated and suffered damage to both arms, internal injuries and a brain injury.

The room in his mother's home needed to be updated to allow wheelchair access. The remodelers added an elevator so Major could reach street level, then built an accessible bathroom and added on to the existing deck to provide access to the backyard. After all the repairs were done, the team discovered the air conditioning and heating system needed to be updated, so they retrofitted that, Merrick says.

Throughout the project, the remodelers were trying to finish it as quickly as possible so it would be ready whenever Major came home.

"He had a very tough time and was in rehab for eight months," Merrick says. "We never knew when he was going to be coming home, so we wanted to be ready."

Major moved in in August, about a month after the project was completed.

It's important that other remodelers volunteer for the program, because there are many more soldiers in need across the country, Merrick says.

"Most of these people wouldn't have survived in the past," he says. "Troops are coming home more severely injured than in earlier wars because we have the technology to save them, but that means they need our help here at home more than ever."

On their own, most military families can't afford necessary renovations, Merrick says.

"Take his case: he gets a $50,000 one-time payment and $2,500 a year in disability payments," he says. "We did probably $130,000 worth of remodeling on this house."

For more information on Heroes at Home or other Rebuilding Together programs, visit

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