Gutter installers profit with screens, filters and hoods
By Mark Ward Sr.
An engineer by trade, Houston homeowner Roger Pierce saw his clogged gutters as another problem to be solved. Trolling the Internet, he researched numerous gutter protection products. Ultimately he bought — directly from the manufacturer — enough gutter protection to cover his entire home and installed the product himself.
For gutter installers, Pierce’s story raises two questions. What attracted the homeowner to a particular solution? And did local installers miss a chance to make a sale?
“I’ve got a big house in Houston with a mansard roof and tons of pine and oak trees around the property,” Pierce recounts, “and I was tired of cleaning my gutters every two weeks. Pine needles in our region don’t blow away and get stuck in everything. And in the South, pollen is everywhere.”
Previously, Pierce had installed a conventional metal-hood gutter protection product but discovered that it “was difficult to install on a mansard roof. Also, the pitch of a mansard roof means that rainwater flows too fast for conventional products that work by water tension.” Likewise, he eliminated mesh-screen solutions in the belief the products would be ineffective against the high volume of pine needles and oak seeds on his property.
In the end, Pierce turned to LeafBlox, a product that fits into the gutter trough and resembles a bendable bristle brush. The product keeps out leaves, allows water to flow freely, and is easily installed without nailing, cutting or drilling. Pierce concurred with worries that metal hood products reduce the size of the gutter opening and make it difficult to clean the trough without removing the entire system.
“I installed LeafBlox three months ago and just took out the bristles to clean them for the first time,” relates Pierce. Because the bristles are UV-protected, the polypropylene had not degraded in any way. Instead, he adds, “All I had to do was wash the bristles off and put them back in. That sure beats having to pull out leaves and debris from my gutters every two weeks, like I did before.”
More installation options
Pierce’s story illustrates several points that gutter installers should note. For one, gutter protection is a mature product and no longer a “new” concept for homeowners.
Consumers are already aware of the option and need not be sold on the idea itself. For another, the Internet gives motivated homeowners the ability to research gutter protection solutions for themselves and even purchase products direct. Both installers and manufacturers, then, must carefully consider their online presence and the cases they present for their solution.
Three other items stand out in Pierce’s story. First, he was motivated not primarily by price — although LeafBlox costs less than metal hood products — but by a determination to finally deal with clogged gutters. Second, Pierce believed he required not just a standard product or conventional solution, but a solution tailored to the special needs of his property and location. Installers who would serve such a customer must be prepared to listen closely and respond.
Finally, whether or not a sympathetic installer would have sold Pierce, his case illustrates that a market remains for do-it-yourselfers. Local installers may have opportunities to be the “experts” who work with homeowners in identifying gutter protection solutions and then providing the supports these customers need to do their own installations.
One such installer is owner Frank Zeka of Tri-County Contracting in New Berlin, Wis. Since 1978, the company has installed roofing and gutter systems throughout the southeastern portion of the state, and in recent years has added siding, windows and remodeling to its services. Six crews that perform roofing and gutter projects, as the latter total about 200 jobs per year and contribute up to 25 percent of Tri-County’s business volume.
Today, Tri-County not only installs its gutter protection solution but also sells it an attractive retail price to do-it-yourself homeowners. As such, Zeka explains, “We can do the installation at $6 to $7 per foot or retail the product to homeowners at $3.50 per foot. So there’s the option of having us do the installation, the customer doing the installation — or even a combination of the two. We’ve worked with customers who installed the product on the more accessible parts of the house, while we did the less accessible parts.”
The point is that Tri-County is making sales to the Roger Pierces of the world, rather than missing out on that market segment altogether. And the company is doing it with a flexible approach rather than imposing a standard solution. Zeka and his crews can either provide the installation, let customers do it themselves, or supplement customers’ efforts where needed. Altogether, the approach enables Tri-County to sell an impressive 14,000 feet of gutter protection per year.
Yet this strategy was not always possible. “Ten to 15 years ago,” Zeka recounts, “we tried different products — metal, vinyl, mesh screens — but there were so many complaints that we simply stopped offering gutter protection.” Then seven years ago he was introduced to a Raindrop Gutter Guards, a hybrid solution that combines the best features of hoods and screens. Impressed, Zeka successfully tested Raindrop on several houses including his own. “Since then, we’ve found that the product sells easy, installs easy and works well,” he affirms.
Just as Pierce sought an effective solution in his part of the county, so did Zeka. Though it should be noted the respective products chosen by the two men are designed by their manufacturers to work in any region, the point is that installers must consider local needs. Thus, Zeka chose a solution he believes is best suited for a northern climate. “Metal hoods can lead to ice damming,” he explains, “while Raindrop is plastic. Also, a hood covers the gutter so the trough never dries out, while Raindrop has an open design.”
Choosing a solution that works is the top priority for Zeka and his customers. Yet the economics add to the appeal. “When we sell a full gutter system, the homeowner adds Raindrop at least 50 percent of the time,” he reports. “In our market, metal hood solutions sell for $20 to $25 per foot installed. So our price of $6 to $7 is a good draw, especially since we can show how Raindrop has worked on a wide range of houses and locations. The customer can add gutter protection without prohibitively raising the cost of the total gutter job.”
For Tri-County, the numbers likewise add up in a positive way. “We can do a whole house in an hour,” says Zeka, “and even after paying crew members $1 per foot to do the installation — which they really like — we still generate profit margins of about 40 percent on gutter protection. By comparison, margins on a roofing job are closer to 10 percent.”
Zeka buys Raindrop products from The Gutter Company. Since his supplier offers gutter protection from several sources, and since he frequently exhibits beside other installers at home shows, then he reviews and evaluates product options on a regular basis. In the end, however, he has stayed with what works for his company. “Every homeowner must have a roof and a gutter system,” he advises, “but no homeowner must have gutter protection. To sell a solution, that solution must meet the individual needs of each customer.”
More pricing options
Having a range of options — from metal hoods on the higher end to mesh screens on the lower — has helped A1 Seamless Gutters of Flat Rock, Ala., meet its customers’ needs since owner Jason Wooten acquired the company in 2006. Four years ago he added a middle option that has subsequently become the focus of his gutter protection sales.
“In our area,” he reports, “metal hood products sell for $10 to $15 per foot installed, while mesh screens go for $2 to $3.50.” Wooten offers another option with Rain Flow, a foam-like material that fills the gutter trough and repels leave while allowing water to pass through. Sold installed at $5 to $5.50 per foot for 5-inch gutters and $6 to $6.50 for 6-inch gutters, the solution “offers our customers gutter protection that really works at a price point that makes sense and then pays for itself year after year.”
A1 Seamless Gutter started selling Rain Flow after a process of “looking for a better gutter protection product and continually talking to our customers and listening to their needs,” states Wooten. Rain Flow offered a solution especially suited to middle-aged and older homeowners who, he says, “don’t want to climb ladders anymore and clean their gutters, and who want an option” that is better than low-end mesh screens while providing effective gutter protection at prices lower than high-end metal hoods.
Given that combination of effectiveness and value, Wooten reports that 75 percent of his Rain Flow sales occur when customers include the product with a complete gutter job. The foam filler installs quickly and, with a single crew that covers northeast Alabama, A1 Seamless Gutters consistently sells between 3,000 and 6,000 feet of gutter protection per year.
Though satisfied with Rain Flow, Wooten regularly checks out the many gutter protection products he receives from manufacturers in order to stay on top of the market. While a change is always possible, he believes his current product offering meets the most important requirements.
“The key is selling a gutter protection product that does two things, first by keeping the downspouts clear and then, by doing so, keeping customers off their ladders,” Wooten counsels. “I tell customers their gutters are like a bathtub. Compared to the tub, the drain is small. But once the drain is stopped, the tub fills up. No product offers 100 percent gutter protection, 100 percent of the time. We believe our solution is the best option to keep downspouts clear.”
Setting the standard
A different business model is followed by Connecticut-based owner Joe Felix of Gutter Helmet of Connecticut. A standard gutter protection solution is possible, he suggests, when the installer’s product sets the standard. “Gutter Helmet’s position in the market is such that it’s almost become a generic name for any gutter protection,” he notes, “in the same way that people say ‘Xeroxing’ when they mean photocopying.”
Gutter Helmet has achieved that position, Felix reports, through a 30-year track record of success that spans every region of the county. “Last year when I became the Gutter Helmet dealer for my territory,” he observes, “part of the deal is that I would service all Gutter Helmet customers in my area — even those who bought the product from former dealers. That’s 30 years’ worth of customers. But callbacks have been virtually nil.”
Felix does not install gutter systems and, in fact, the parent company he owns — of which Gutter Helmet of CT is a subsidiary — builds sunrooms and remodels basements. “Those markets can be seasonal,” he explains, “and I was looking for products we could sell year-round. So I’d checked into a Gutter Helmet competitor, but the product just didn’t intrigue me.”
Because Felix operates as a marketing company that generates leads through direct response advertising, offering a product with built-in name recognition would be an advantage. So when Gutter Helmet was seeking a new Connecticut dealer and approached Felix, he jumped at the opportunity. Today he is the dealer for four Connecticut counties and says, “If I could, I’d get more territory and concentrate my business exclusively on selling Gutter Helmet.”
While do-it-yourselfers like Roger Pierce represent a certain slice of the market, Gutter Helmet of CT is prospering by reaching out to the masses. Through direct mail, radio, television and home show advertising, Felix is targeting “people who are 50-plus years old, who know that gutters in New England should be cleaned two or three times a year and who don’t want to climb ladders anymore.”
To these customers Felix offers a Gutter Helmet product that, he says, provides a permanent solution to clogged gutters. “To keep their gutters protected, all that homeowners need to do is rinse their Gutter Helmet once a year. You can do that maintenance from ground level — and we provide the nozzle for your hose.”
Felix argues that metal hood products work better than foam gutter fillers — and, of course, that his own product is superior to its competitors. When asked about the chief selling point for gutter protection, he replies simply, “It’s such a competitive market that our biggest selling point is, honestly, being the best. Our product is so well known that when customers are looking for gutter protection, what they often have in their minds is Gutter Helmet.”
Nevertheless, Felix is aware that the Internet has given consumers the opportunity not to just take his word for it. “One advantage of being a dealer for an established national company is the advertising support we get,” he reports. “Gutter Helmet gives its dealers an intense online marketing presence that provides consumers with answers and gives them confidence in our solution.”
Against the sales commissions Felix pays and against his product and installation costs, Gutter Helmet of CT is earning gross profits of 55 percent. Achieving that level of profitability is possible because, he says, “Customers love the product and callbacks are zero. Gutter protection is a mature product that’s been around now for decades. You don’t have to sell the concept. Because we offer a product that works and gives consumers confidence, we close the sale about 50 to 60 percent of the time.”
As a mature market, gutter protection offers abundant product and pricing options for consumers and installers. Because needs and preferences are individual to each homeowner — and because each installer is positioned differently to meet those needs — the “right” solution may vary. From supporting the do-it-yourselfers, to providing effective products at attractive price points, to offering established brands with mass appeal, there is room for installers at all levels to find their niches.