Earlier this year, Spencer Tait, general manager of Taitco, in Moorestown, N.J., went on a roofing call where he was the fifth contractor to visit but the only one to suggest that the problem — a leak — could be repaired without replacing the entire shingle roof — a job which, in the company’s New Jersey market, costs anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.

With costs of both labor and materials rising steadily, replacing a roof is a project that some homeowners want to postpone as long as they can, especially if the roof has reached the stage where it’s starting to have problems but is not completely shot. Ken Kelly, president of Kelly Roofing, in Naples, Fla., estimates that the cost of a shingle roof has roughly doubled during the last 10 years, which has prompted his company to expand repair services to a department consisting of six three-man crews. “We don’t want to be pushing someone into a roof replacement who hasn’t gotten the full life out of the roof,” Kelly says. He and others suggest the best way to proceed in that situation.

• Examine the roof, identify the problem, and suggest possible solutions. Tait walks every roof to check flashing details, chimneys, and pipe towers and to identify soft spots in the sheathing. “Most times shingle roofs don’t leak where the shingles are,” says Scott Siegal, owner of Maggio Roofing, in Takoma Park, Md. Maggio Roofing’s estimator looks for granular loss and checks out the ventilation situation. “If the granular loss isn’t that bad and it looks OK, we will go for the repair,” Siegal says. At Taitco, if the shingles look to be in good condition, and the problem is water intrusion through the usual sources, Tait says that putting a single repair person on the roof for a day to replace bad shingles, re-do flashing, and seal vent and pipe openings usually provides a solution short of complete replacement.

• Break out the long-term cost of repair vs. replacement. If the current roof is serviceable but in need of replacement at some point soon — say within five years — lay out the pluses and minuses of repair versus replacement for owners. You’d need to gather information about their financial situation, since not everyone can afford to replace a roof on short notice. Repair will spare them that cost. On the other hand, the accumulating cost of repair after repair may make them wish they’d bitten the bullet and had the roof replaced. If they go with replacing the roof, the homeowners may qualify for discounts on their property insurance and spare themselves the cost of future repairs, which can quickly mount. “If you can fix it, fix it. If you can keep it going into perpetuity, it’s better for everybody,” Kelly says. “But the economic advantages may be with replacement.”

Repairs: Labor Intensive and Profitable

One reason why Tait was the only one to propose repairing rather than replacing is that many roofing companies aren’t set up to repair. They only replace roofs. As roofing costs increase, the important thing is to be able to offer either. “We have 20 people who do repair work all the time,” says Nick Sabino, president of Deer Park Roofing, in Cincinnati. The call for repair might involve a leaking chimney, a tree falling onto the roof, or even clogged gutters. “Homeowners don’t get on ladders,” Sabino says. “They call somebody else.” But who? “There are a handful of companies in our market who do repairs,” he notes.

Roofing company owners may spurn the small repair job, Kelly says, but such jobs can run to thousands of dollars and gross margin on repair work is often double what it might be on a roofing replacement job.

The other payoff is that homeowners who use a company once, or more than once, to fix the roof rarely choose to play Russian roulette when it comes time to replace it. Tait estimates that three out of every four repair customers eventually have Taitco replace their roof. “They’re going to go with the company they have a relationship with,” Kelly says, “as long as I’m fair, deliver value, and have a better system than what other people are offering for about the same amount of money.” Last year a $175 roof fix performed by Deer Park Roofing led to a $1.3 million multifamily replacement job. —Jim Cory is a contributing editor to REMODELING who is based in Philadelphia.