When Maria Garcia-Gutierrez purchased her first home in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, FL, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The house was a 1925 Craftsman bungalow with a rotting porch, hardwood floors that had seen better days, and other neglected spots in need of repair. The then-single graphic designer didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so hiring contractors wasn’t an option.
“I bought the house because it was cheap and I saw potential in it,” she says. “But I didn’t know the first thing about home improvement, other than that my dad, who used to sell tile, had taught me how to set tile.”
With the help of her parents and two brothers, she started tackling what projects she could and hoped for the best.
The neighborhood had been run-down and crime-ridden for years and was just starting to undergo a renaissance. Anytime Garcia-Gutierrez went outside, she invariably ran into neighbors who were also tackling home improvement projects on their new “fixer-upper” houses.
“They were a lot like me—they didn’t have a lot of money and were renovating their homes themselves,” she says. “We were constantly trading horror stories about the bad day we had at the hardware store or the paint thinner we bought that stripped our skin.”
One day, while Garcia-Gutierrez and her mother were stripping the floors in her home, her mother noted that it might be nice if everyone in the neighborhood started collaborating on home improvement projects for each other.
Garcia-Gutierrez initially dismissed the thought, but it stuck with her. A few weeks later at a community event, she half-jokingly told her neighbors about her mother’s “crazy idea.”
“But the only person they thought was crazy was me, for thinking it couldn’t work,” she says.
So that’s when the Southeast Seminole Heights Home Improvement Team, or HIT, was born. The neighbors band together to do repair and renovation projects for each other one Saturday a month.
The benefits, says Garcia-Gutierrez, are enormous: They pool their expertise, the sheer number of workers make the projects go faster, and they save money by not hiring contractors. Saving money allows many home repair teams to more easily afford green home improvement products, like sustainably harvested wood. Best of all, regularly working side-by-side fosters solid friendships and a real sense of community.
Bringing a Team Together
Back in 2000, when the Southeast Seminole Heights HIT program started, the members all owned homes in various stages of renovation. Their projects ranged from putting up privacy fences to replacing Garcia-Gutierrez’s rotting porch to building a garage. But even when most of the members finished their major repairs, they found that they still had no shortage of projects.
“We still do a lot of painting, some landscaping, and even general yard maintenance when people’s yards get a little too overgrown,” Garcia-Gutierrez says. And, since she eventually married an electrician, they now handle some electrical projects, like installing new light fixtures.
In the beginning, the HIT members drew two names out of a hat to decide who would get to go first. Then they set up a rule that members must work on at least two projects before they’re eligible to have a project done in their home. The first few people were on an honor system; now, Garcia Gutierrez keeps track of who has worked on what in a simple database on her computer.
“But the members know, too,” she says. “We never have fights over who is going to have a project done. Usually, I ask who’s ready, and they’ll point to someone and go, ‘You! You haven’t had a project done in a while!’”
Twenty years ago in Minneapolis, MN, Green America members Philipp and Laura Muessig and two other couples started a smaller, more intimate version of a home repair team. Philipp Muessig doesn’t quite remember how their team started, saying its origins are “lost to passing years and the raising of children.”
But like Garcia-Gutierrez, the Muessigs and the other two couples—who met through a mutual friend—had little extra money at the time and older houses that needed a lot of work. And so, once one of them came up with the idea of working on each other’s houses, it didn’t take the group long to organize their first repair party.
For two decades, they’ve met one Saturday or Sunday per month, at 9 a.m. or 2 p.m., first sharing a meal and conversation. They work for three hours each meeting, which Muessig says is the perfect amount of time for busy parents like themselves because “it doesn’t take up the whole day.”
During their early years, they dug new gardens, stripped wallpaper, and tore out crumbling concrete steps. Now that their houses are in good shape, they’ve moved on to maintenance projects like trimming bushes, painting, freezing pesto from the garden, or debugging computers.
When they do home repairs, Muessig says his group likes to choose green, least-toxic products, like low-VOC paints and stains, or nontoxic paint removers. This spring, the Muessigs are planning to install a solar attic fan.
“If a green product costs more, it’s insignificant to us, because we’re saving so much money by working together instead of hiring contractors,”
No matter which structure you choose, our repair team experts offer the following guidelines:
• Meet one weekend day a month: Anything more than that may scare off busy neighbors.
• Keep in regular contact with each other. Free listservs like those offered by Yahoo.com or Google.com provide an easy way for members to stay in touch. You can send out reminders about work days, ask for equipment you’ll need, and collect RSVPs from people who plan to attend.
• Figure out a simple system for taking turns. A small, stable group like Muessig’s can have a simple rotation system. Garcia-Gutierrez’s group began by drawing two names out of a hat and then initiated the two-project rule.
• Make a pact to go green. Commit to researching and implementing the safest, least-toxic solutions to your home repair problems.
• Protect yourself legally. Garcia-Gutierrez has everyone sign a waiver saying that if they get injured, they assume all responsibility and waive any responsibility on the part of the homeowner.
• Choose projects that can be completed in a day, such as painting a kitchen or tiling a bathroom. Or if you do decide to have your local home repair team tackle a larger project, make sure it’s one where even if it isn’t completed, you’ll be glad that you’ve gotten a head start. Muessig says since his group has “modest” repair skills, they also try not to tackle highly complex tasks. “We don’t want to stress out blowing the installation on a $2,000 swinging door, so we try to keep projects simple,” he says.
• Pool your tools. Figure out what tools you’ll need for your project beforehand, and let the group know. In many cases, group members will have the necessary tools. When you need a piece of equipment that no one owns, you can rent one—probably for fewer hours than if you were working without the extra help.
• Feed the people: Since homeowners are basically getting free labor, it’s a good idea for them to provide food and beverages. Count on at least two meals, as well as a steady supply of drinks.
• Invite new members: As the saying goes, many hands make light work. Put ads in your local paper and community newsletter, and hang up signs in the neighborhood.
• Bring in experts: Some repair teams invite experts to conduct workshops on various aspects of home repair, such as setting tile or faux painting.
Saving money and making your home a nicer place to live are two significant benefits of creating a home improvement team. But perhaps the best benefit of all is that it builds a real sense of community among neighbors.
Muessig credits his repair team’s longevity to the group’s solid friendships. “I don’t think we would have been as good of friends without the work parties,” he says.
When Garcia-Gutierrez told her neighbors she was getting married, they surprised her by pitching in to help, just as if it had been a HIT project. One couple offered their home and yard as the site for the wedding, several helped clean up and trim the yard, others set up and decorated, and still others cooked food for the reception. One member has a son who plays the harp, and he ended up providing the music for the ceremony.
It didn’t take long for the community to start referring to the event as “the HIT wedding.”
“I figured when I first bought my house, I just bought a house,” says Garcia-Gutierrez. “I didn’t realize I was buying a whole neighborhood.”
Beyond Repairs: Time Banks
If the idea of a home repair team inspires you, you may want to consider expanding the services you and your neighbors offer each other. Maybe you’re hopeless with a nail gun, but you’re a whiz with computers, a great cook, a gifted scrapbooker, or a musician with a love for teaching. Or maybe you simply have some time during the day to run errands for someone in need.
If so, consider starting or joining a Time Bank to exchange these services and more. Time Banks were started in 1987 by Edgar Cahn—a past winner of Green America’s Building Economic Alternatives award—and there are now about 55 across the country. Basically, you offer up a service of almost any kind to your neighbors—say, gardening. You “bank” the hours you spend gardening for other Time Bank members, and then you can exchange those “Time Dollars” for a service of your own, like the yoga classes or legal advice offered by other members. Time Banks can run either online, with the help of special Time Banking software, or via phone, where you call a coordinator who will help you request or offer services, and log your hours. In either case, you’ll need a small team of people who keep the system running, perhaps in exchange for Time Dollars.
In addition to keeping an online directory of Time Banks across the US, TimeBanks USA provides a start-up kit, with Time Banking software, for $49 to communities wanting to launch their own.
Time Bank: www.timebanks.org