Compared to the general real estate market, the market for luxury custom homes is more resistant to the downswings that can plague mid-range properties. Upscale home buyers know what they want and are willing to pay for it — and increasingly, that includes the gutters, because classic style and historic metal complements the home’s architectural appearance.
“They want to preserve the aesthetics of a house they’ve paid a lot of money for,” explains Brian White, owner of RainDrain Seamless Gutters in Belgrade, Mont. He and his wife Kristin have installed gutters on many high-end rustic retreats. “After spending $100,000 on features like a customized standing seam galvanized roof,” Brian explains, “spending an extra $2,000 to get the gutters to match is not a big deal.”
Across the country in Trumbull, Conn., owner Tom Papazidis of T.P. Seamless Gutters has been in the industry for 25 years. A major portion of his projects are expensive new homes in elite neighborhoods. “Only a few years ago, maybe 15 percent of my customers were looking for natural materials such as copper and zinc for their gutters,” he reports. But as more architects, builders and homeowners discover the design possibilities of natural metals for gutters, he says “close to half of my projects” now involve such products.
Another veteran Connecticut installer, president John Allgood of Allgood Gutters LLC in Reading, explains the reason for the rising demand. “The popularity of exotic gutters has grown in the last 10 years or so,” he says, “due to availability. Even though the price of copper has gone up, people still want it because they’re going for a certain look. Copper gutters are desirable for many of the high-end colonial homes in our area, but there’s the added benefit that the product lasts a lot longer than traditional gutters.”
Business is also booming for Jamieson Droheim, sales representative for C.T. Roofing Reps, Inc., in East Berlin, Conn. The company supplies RHEINZINK titanium zinc gutters to its builder clients who, he says, are “looking for quality gutter systems, but are also environmentally conscious. Zinc is a ‘green’ material to manufacture and the runoff from gutters won’t hurt the environment or stain adjacent building materials.” Thus exotic gutters, he believes, can provide solutions that are sustainable, stylish and strong.
Since its founding in 2003, RainDrain Gutters has done everything from standard 5-inch K-style gutters to half-rounds, custom box gutters, copper and zinc. “We even fulfilled one customer’s request for a custom color match — bright orange,” Brian White relates. But one unique project forced him to come up with an entirely new and truly exotic product.
“When we took on the gutter project for a Montana ranch, the customer had a rusty corrugated roof and wanted the gutter to match,” White recalls. “The building was composed of natural materials like stone and stained wood and they wanted to continue the theme. So we stripped galvanized material and then applied a chemical to achieve a rusted look while preserving the interior.”
Since then, many other homeowners have requested the rusted look. “We’ve come a long way and really upgraded and perfected our rusted systems,” says Kristin White. RainDrain is happy to share its rusting process with installers in non-competing markets. “But,” she points out, “you need the temperature to approach 30 degrees to complete the process.” The finishing is labor intensive and the product holds up well in Montana dry air but might not last as long in moister climates.
The larger point, however, is that today’s custom homeowners are receptive to stylish gutter systems that can set their properties apart from the rest. “The rusty gutters look great for anything with a corrugated roof or materials like natural cedar fascia and slate,” he says. But whether the style is rustic or modern or traditional, White believes customer education is the key to closing the deal. “Homeowners usually know nothing about all their gutter options,” he says. “So we not only educate them on our installation techniques. We let them know what’s available to achieve the aesthetic they want.”
Clients are willing to pay for a truly distinctive look, White says, and “exotic gutters offer a lot more architectural detail” than standard products. “They want something different than the Joneses,” he states, “and once a customer is sold on the idea of a product, you can charge more for it — especially if you’re the only one offering it in your area.”
Capitalizing on product trends can be as easy as making a few phone calls. As White explains, “Research your manufacturer and find out what they offer. Just because a product isn’t listed doesn’t mean they’re not capable of getting it for you. It might be worth it for you to offer something different than your competition, so that you can make more money.”
RainDrain has followed that philosophy and even in a down economy, is often so booked up that builders must call a year in advance to get scheduled. But popular products must also be backed by superior service. “Always call people back, even when you are booked,” White advises. “Give customers the details on exactly what they’re getting for the money. Sell yourself as being better — and give them the questions to ask other gutter companies.”
Another profitable strategy is to offer a variety of gutter accessories and services to go along with the gutter systems. “We offer custom color matching, splash blocks and help with underground drainage,” notes White, “and those services are all listed on the estimate at the time of sale. We let clients know what we offer and many times there might be 10 or 15 add-ons to the basic gutter system.”
Take That, Copper
Building a good reputation has kept business strong at Allgood Gutters. While the company has installed aluminum and steel gutters, much of its work has been in copper — and many of those projects come from referrals. “Usually people approach me about copper gutters, since our customers are usually referred by someone or see an ad,” John Allgood reports.
But then again, few competitors have the reputation that inspires customers to trust them with truly unique projects. “One of our more challenging projects was a home whose architecture called for lots of curves in the architecture,” Allgood recalls. “We installed a radius gutter that was specially ordered with an embossed design on the front of it.”
Working with comparatively expensive metals, however, means mistakes can be costly. “You must pay attention to detail,” advises Allgood. “Although customers might be focused on the look, how the gutter system functions is still the key. So you must make sure it all works correctly. There’s more planning involved and you might have to do things like change the flashing.”
Like the RainDrain, Allgood Gutters offers products that complement its gutters, from leaderheads to gutter medallions. “I sell lots of accessories,” Allgood says, “which I recommend to customers for maintenance or to highlight architectural features. We do everything we can to add to the look of the house. Offer all the gutters and accessories you can possibly can and not just one type. There are lots of options out there.”
For his part, Tom Papazidis of T.P. Seamless Gutters must be ready to tackle a wide variety of projects. “I work on all types of homes, from Colonial to Saltbox, as well as homes with brick or rock facades,” he says. “Once we even did a large copper gutter job for an architect who had gutted an old brick train station.”
Nevertheless, even owners of luxury homes are considering current economics. “Some homeowners know what they want and price isn’t even a question,” he says. “But when other homeowners hear bad news about the economy, they might hold back” on going all out for copper gutters. “People who wanted copper when it was $1.30 a pound can get priced out at the current market of $6 a pound,” he observes.
For that reason, Papazidis works with home builders to provide them with options. He says his supplier, Metro Roofing Supply of Stamford, Conn., provides that variety and great service. “I’ll price it for builders every way possible — white standard or copper, ogee or half-round — and give them samples to look at with the home,” he relates. With copper, however, he must caution customers to remember the metal will patina over time. “Some people like the way copper looks new. So sometimes I have to explain how weathering will affect the color.”
If the decision is to go with copper gutters, then installation of the expensive metal must be done carefully. “You have to know how to solder and install copper gutters the right way,” Papazidis advises, “and since you can’t mix ferrous and nonferrous metals, you must have the right hangers.”
Gutter installers who do enough volume in copper, Papazidis adds, can take steps to beat any price increases. “Stocking product does take money,” he explains, “but if you buy copper at a good price, it can help make you some extra profit down the road. Make sure you stock up when you know a price increase is coming. We saved ourselves 10 percent this month by buying before the increase.”
Everything but the kitchen zinc
As an alternative to copper and lead-coated copper, C. T. Roofing Reps’ Jamieson Droheim says, “Zinc has an attractive finish. And it’s pre-weathered so what you see is what you get. Another reason it’s become popular is that it’s very price-competitive with copper.”
Droheim (firstname.lastname@example.org) also serves as a supplier for RHEINZINK through Master Distributors Rheinzink Gutter Systems in East Berlin, Conn. He says like copper, zinc “can go on any structure, on any home,” adds Droheim, “but upper-end residential housing seems to be the strongest market.” Although commercial buildings favor the box-style for zinc, residential customers prefer it in a half-round design. “It’s classic and fits an Old World or New England look well,” he states.
While Old World and New England styling is popular in Connecticut, Droheim reports zinc gutters are catching on in other regions that favor other styles. “In different parts of the country there’s a demand for zinc,” he relates, “because it has the versatility to be used with many architecture styles, from modern homes to ranches.”
Customer education is helping to spur sales of zinc. “As the interest in using green materials grows, I’ve talked with members of the design community as well as builders and installers alike about the benefits of zinc gutters,” Droheim says.
Although zinc has its own metallic properties, installation of zinc gutters is generally similar to copper systems. Perhaps the main difference, Droheim explains, is that the melting point of zinc is about half that of copper, so installers must use a soldering iron with propane rather than use a torch.
By offering a variety of products to potential customers, gutter installers can differentiate themselves from the competition while boosting their bottom lines — provided they back up high style with the substance of a superior service and quality installation.