Selling and Installing the Difficult Roof

Selling and Installing the Difficult Roof

Estimating man-hours can be tricky on the tough or unique roofing jobs most companies will walk away from.

The job was a three-story Victorian with “a very large turret, and a mansard,” recalls Kevin Phillips, co-owner of Full Service Roofing & Remodeling in Quincy, Ill. The product Full Service Roofing installed—stone-coated steel shingles—doesn’t come cheap either.

But as with any unique roof, Phillips says the hardest part wasn’t getting it installed so much as bidding it. “It’s a little bit of an educated guestimation,” he says. “You don’t know how many man-hours something you’ve never done before is going to take.”

Valleys, Hips, Transitions

Challenging roof replacements come up all the time in every market, but not every roofing company wants to or can take them on. Issues start with the roof’s condition, which might be unwalkable or otherwise unsafe. In addition, “there’s the pitch and the product,” notes Gerry Aubrey, a home inspection consultant in Blue Bell, Penn., who teaches roof inspection nationally.

Pitch can present a formidable obstacle. (For an explanation of roof pitch, see APB Pole Barns.) Product matters because “if you’re doing a straight architectural shingle, that’s no big deal,” says Horacio Kusnier, owner of K&B Home Remodelers, in Randolph, N.J. “However, some of the designer shingles and heavier weighted shingles call for open valleys. Now you have to do open valleys on all the valleys, which slows things down and adds to your cost.” Meanwhile, Aubrey notes, all those pieces cut off and thrown away doubles your job waste.

Just as challenging, says Ken Kelly, president of Kelly Roofing in Bonita Springs, Fla., are “wall flashings that require siding or stucco to be removed in order to flash the roof correctly.” Besides such, he cites access, decorative elements requiring protection (“special fascia or soffit around the perimeter of the building”), and the presence of “many valleys, hips and transitions.”

What these add up to is “a lot of little sections [that] could take twice as much time,” Aubrey points out.

Dormers And Skylights

For Kearns Brothers Inc., in Dearborn, Mich., dormers and skylights are the biggest red flags, according to Gary Kearns, vice president of marketing and sales. That said, Kearns can’t recall a single job the company has turned down for technical challenges.

A recent replacement project, for instance, involved a roof with a bank of eight skylights—“four panels below, four panels above, separated by four inches”—which, Kearns says, had not been installed properly. The company’s proposal included replacing the skylights because 1) they were old, and 2) Kearns Brothers could properly flash around new skylights in the re-roof.

But, the client objected, the existing skylights weren’t leaking. “We could re-flash them to the best of our ability,” Kearns recalls. “But if they leak, how do you say: ‘We told you so’? That doesn’t go over well. After 32 years in business, we have a pretty good idea of what’s good, what’s wrong, where the troubles are, and where mistakes are made.”


Many companies back away from a complicated roof. They lack “the technical prowess, the capital, or the equipment to handle it,” Kelly says, "so they pass, and the customer’s left stranded.”

On an “up-and-over” roof, roofing companies are typically on and off the property in a day or two. A difficult job could take weeks. Profitably completing that project means carefully evaluating the challenges, and budgeting for man-hours accordingly. “Difficult jobs are labor-driven. You have to know your company’s limitations,” Phillips says. “I have to feel 100 percent confident that we can complete the scope of work safely.”

Automate It

Some years back, Kelly Roofing developed a software program that calculates job costs by degree of difficulty. When he first created it, a difficult job was “anything over 50 squares, involving multiple crews or multiple trips to the job.”

The program expanded to take into account pitch, access (how easily can materials be transported to the site), and other factors. Breaking down every task cut materials waste to almost nothing. “It helps our staff automate those things that are time consuming,” Kelly says. Today, a difficult job for Kelly Roofing would be “a major shopping center with equipment on the roof.”

Kelly Roofing also schedules a preconstruction meeting on difficult jobs that includes the crew leader, the supervisor, the salesperson, and the office administrator ordering the job. “Your salesperson might be really good at closing that deal, but have they ever installed a difficult job?” Kelly asks. “Probably not. So it’s important to get the supervisor or the crew leader to meet with them."

Price Accordingly

Details are one reason companies that price jobs by the square walk away from a difficult roof. They’ll get killed on pricing.

On a brick or stucco house, for instance, “you have to replace all the step flashing,” says K&B vice president, Mike Damora. “You have to cut back along those transition lines, flash it, and reproduce the stucco. You’re cutting stone around every dormer and transition. And you have to charge for it. I can’t price it at $450 a square like I would an up-and-over. Do that and you get crushed.”

Contractors prepared to take on tough roofing jobs often find homeowners desperate for a roofer willing and able to solve their problem. “Anybody who’s gotten more than one estimate has to know they have a difficult roof,” Damora says. “So my presentation is going to show them the difficulty, and price accordingly.”

Companies with the skills and equipment to take on these jobs are usually the ones that have been around for a while. “When you have an experienced team, the biggest problem with these roofs is measuring them,” Kearns says. That is, figuring out man-hours. And while aerial estimating tools such as EagleView or Hover are useful, difficult jobs require someone on the site who knows what he’s actually looking at and can translate it into hours.

Kelly notes that many roofers will get a call, scope out a house on Google Earth, and then decide whether or not to return it. “We’re one of the ones who show up,” he says. “We talk about our capabilities and experiences and how that separates us from someone else."

Three Lifts and Some Scaffolding

Phillips says that old Victorian was their most difficult job of the year. Its owners had had other contractors out to look at the work, and none were willing to take it on. It required three different lifts and “a little bit of scaffolding.”

And because of the amount of labor involved, plus the time, price, and planning, the company had to be prepared to offer a strong workmanship warranty and a product with a long manufacturer’s warranty. Homeowners want to know they won’t be dealing with the same problem 10 years down the road.

“They were very receptive that we came up with a game plan, a solution, and an itinerary,” Phillips says. They wanted and were willing to pay for a job that, once completed, meant they wouldn't have to worry about it again. And, Phillips says, “with that product properly installed, they won’t have to.”

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