It’s happened to every builder: the windows you ordered are the wrong size. But you can't return them, so they sit in the warehouse for years. And most every remodeler has shaken his head while hauling a perfectly nice set of cabinets to the landfill because the homeowner wants something different.
But in many parts of the country there are places where these misfit building materials can go to find homes. And, in the process, donators can get tax deductions, cut landfill fees, and feel good because they’ve done something “green” by cutting landfill waste, providing cheaper building products for those in need, and helping create “green” jobs for those who sort and sell the donations.
It's a win for all involved, and both the economic downturn and growing interest in growing green has spurred demand for such building materials. Ironically, though, many re-use organizations report that donations are down because there's less building happening at the moment.
“We are looking at a nice demand for our products, but it’s harder to get material,” says Ron Whittaker, Northern California regional manager for The Reuse People, which deconstructs buildings, takes donations of building supplies and resells them at several locations across the country, often to small contractors looking to save their customers money. With donations down, "now there’s less incentive for people to come," says Whittaker, who hopes business will pick up in December when people remember time is running out for tax deductions.
Despite fewer contributions, The Reuse People say the organization still gets some wonderful donations that translate to bargains for their customers. “We get cherry wood cabinets and we sell them at 15 percent of retail,” Whittaker said, adding that group typically charges between 10% and 25& of retail. “But because we are a non-profit, we allow ourselves to be bargained down all the time,” he said. “I’m looking out my window at a Sub-Zero refrigerator with an oak veneer. We are selling it for $500. If you had $400 and a pickup truck, we’d sell it to you.”
Similarly, The Green Project, a New Orleans-based recycler of building materials and art supplies also reports an increase in demand and a decrease in supply of reusable building products. “The re-building has definitely tapered off,” says Angie Green, the group's executive director. “Either people have completed their jobs, or they are deciding to wait. At the same time, people are shopping [for discounted building supplies], but they tend to spend less money.”
When buyers open their wallets, though, they can purchase some amazing things. "It’s not like you can walk into a Home Depot or Lowe's these days and find a solid cypress door,” says Green, whose group charges 20% to 40% off retail for its goods. “There’s amazing lumber still stuck in those buildings that are eventually going to be demolished.”
(Here's a tax tip for tear-downs from Green: Donate a house rather than demolishing it. “You can donate a whole house worth of materials and take a huge deduction for the next 20 years," she says.)
Other groups report a pickup in contributions and business. “We are actually getting more” donations, said Meghan Adkins, donation coordinator for Community Forklift in Edmonston, Md. “I would say in the past six or eight months we’ve gone from three to six pickups (of donations) a day” from builders, homeowners, and businesses.”
Adkins and Ruthie Mundell, the organization’s outreach director, credit the growing awareness of overflowing landfills and green concerns for the increase in donations, as well as the prospect of a tax break. “If you think about it, we are completely bombarded with information about climate change,” Adkins says.
That message--and the need to save cash--is also reaching consumers. "In terms of numbers of customers, this summer was a record and so has this fall,” Community Forklift's Mundell says.
Such outlets are popping up all over the country. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores, which accept donated goods for resale, currently operates 673 ReStores and is adding three or four locations monthly, according to Habitat spokesman Kevin Campbell.
Habitat is not immune from the general trends, negative and positive, affecting the building material reuse outlets, but its size does give it an advantage. ReStore operators “definitely say donations are down from the home owner market but the slack has been taken up by greater donations of new merchandise from manufacturers,” Campbell says. “Some of our donor partners, like Whirlpool, Dow, and Valspar have added ReStore as a component recently.”
The push for green solutions to waste has given Habitat's ReStores too. “We definitely feel that,” Campbell says. “There are a lot of people who are thinking before sending things off to the landfill--homeowners and companies as well.”
Selling used building materials are also good business for Habitat, with ReStores' $250 million in gross sales netting the company $85 million in profit last year. Habitat uses the money to pay salaries, utilities, and other operating expenses at the nonprofit.
Operators of building materials reuse outlets hope government will begin taking more notice of the industry. “One of our dreams is that one day the government will subsidize re-use,” says Adkins of Community Forklift. After all, she points out, government subsidizes the costs of landfills.
Whittaker says the building community itself needs to pay more attention to the opportunities and challenges of reusing and recycling building materials. “Even within the green building community, most of the focus is on energy efficiency, water resources, indoor air quality rather than interest on using salvaged goods,” he says, noting that salvaged materials sometimes have problems meeting building codes. “This is a challenge for our industry to address. We need some grades for salvaged lumber, not just new lumber grades," he says.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor at BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.
If You Want to Donate Building Materials
One place beyond the phone book to find organizations that accept building materials for a tax donation is at the Building Materials Reuse Association’s Web site.
Call or check the organization’s web site for donation criteria. Some accept appliances, some don’t. Most don’t accept soft goods such as couches. All want things they can truly resell, not items that truly belong in a landfill.
For information on how to claim a tax deduction, check with your accountant or IRS.gov.
Selected Building Material Reuse Groups
New Britain, Conn.
Habitat ReStores (locations in almost every state
The ReUse People
The Green Project
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Baltimore, MD.