Renovate, reuse, recycle

Discount prices drum up profits, aid environment

By Inman News Feed
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Discount prices drum up profits, aid environment

Mary Umberger
Inman News

Ruthie Mundell helps to run a resale store. Her merchandise isn't the predictable overcoats and baby strollers and slightly dented toasters that most people associate with resale. Instead, at the Community Forklift in Edmonston, Md., they're selling oak doors and kitchen cabinets and clawfoot tubs.

"We are a thrift store for home improvement," says Mundell, outreach director for the 6-year-old store in the Washington, D.C., area. "Picture a Home Depot warehouse run by a nonprofit."

It's one of hundreds of community-based retail operations around the country that have latched on to the green movement's coattails by finding a way to keep tons of unwanted building materials out of landfills. And though the housing industry has been enduring some bad-to-horrendous years, many secondhand building suppliers say the recession has stoked demand for their products.

"The economy as a whole has been positive for us," said Mundell. "Not a lot of our customers are new homebuilders. A lot are contractors doing renovations or repairs. People have less money, but homes still need repairs."

She said prices at Community Forklift for such things as vintage sinks and salvaged flooring -- even many brand-new, donated items -- typically are 50 to 90 percent below retail. The store expected to have $750,000 in sales in 2009.

Business isn't driven just by bargain-hunting, she said. The "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra has finally sunk in, and "landfill" has become a dirty word.

And building materials are a natural target. The United States generated 143.5 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris in 2008, but only 40.2 million were reused, recycled or sent to waste-to-energy facilities, according to a November report from McGraw Hill Construction.

In 2005, the Building Materials Reuse Association in Beaverton, Ore., estimated that up to 360,000 tons of the unwanted materials were finding their way back into the community through resale operations. Mundell and others say they expect the numbers to be much higher today, given the proliferation of stores such as her group's. The association maintains a nationwide database of such businesses at www.bmra.org.

Builders and remodelers have always grappled with the problem of perfectly good materials that are either unwanted or unsuitable for particular jobs. Now, says Matt Knox, there are both lots of places to put them and a motivation to get them there.

"Most contractors have what they call their bone yard," says Knox, an entrepreneur who co-founded DiggersList.com, an online classified-ad company that specializes in construction materials for contractors, suppliers and do-it-yourselfers.

"I was an insurance broker for contractors for 20 years," Knox said. "I would talk to them and would hear them say after every job they have excess materials and they get thrown away or they store them. They can't bear to throw it away because it's still new, or it may be a one-of-a-kind item like a fireplace mantle or a neat piece of distressed wood."

These days, Knox says, the builders may be more inclined to post their excess inventory on a site such as his as a way to generate some income. Or they may shop through the sites just to find deals, he says.

DiggersList.com recently formed a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles and Habitat for Humanity of Orange County (California) to create "online storefronts" for their retail building materials operations, known as Habitat ReStores. These ReStores' Web sites will use the DiggersList.com widget to syndicate their inventory online, Knox said.

Mundell said that even with the homebuilding downturn, Community Forklift staff is seeing an uptick in donations, making two to six pickups a day of materials from construction sites.

"Builders and renovators love to donate to us because they're able to realize a tax deduction instead of having to pay a fee to landfill it," she said.

At the same time, though, a shift in the overall building market has changed the nature of some donations, Mundell said. The day of the teardown is over, at least for the moment, she said.

"We're seeing fewer donations of whole structures," Mundell said. "Two or three years ago, there were a lot of small, older homes that were being taken apart and replaced with McMansions.

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