Q: My house needs a lot of work, but I just don’t have the time or skills. Is sharing work with neighbors a solution? How can I can do that?
I grew up a city girl, believing that opening the phone book was the way to fix anything that went wrong with the house or the car. I’m not exactly what you would call handy. The idea of collaborating with neighbors to work on home projects would never have occurred to my family. Barnraising, we assumed, was just for barns.
But thanks to a sharing project with my neighbors, I’ve discovered that there is room and a role for someone like me in home improvement projects. And forming a neighborhood work group fosters more connections in your neighborhood, not to mention finally repair those broken steps or rototill the back yard.
Once a month during the warm season, my partner Luan and I report for duty at one of six different neighborhood homes to help build a fence, paint a house, terrace a garden, put in a mosaic path, or what have you—with some eating and chatting thrown in. One month each year, the neighbors come to our house to work on our project. It’s great fun, and over the past four years we’ve saved thousands of dollars having our neighbors paint our house, fix the roof of our backyard patio, and put in retaining walls in the front garden.
As we enter our fifth year sharing home improvement days, our connections with our neighbors have gone far beyond the monthly work projects. We also help each other out in other ways—this winter, one household put out a call to the neighborhood group for help finishing a retrofit that they started on their work day during the summer, and whoever was available went over and crawled around under the house. I know that if our fence blew down, we could call on our neighbors—now, our friends—to come over on a moment’s notice and help us fix it. We also show up at one another’s art openings, political events, and afternoon barbecues.
Here’s how you can organize your own neighborhood work group:
Reach Out: There are a few ways to start a neighborhood work group. One is to hand-pick the neighbors you want to work with, from people you already know. Another is to send out a message via a neighborhood listserve or by posting an old-fashioned flyer in a local gathering spot like a coffee shop, book store, grocery store, or hardware store.
Get a Mix of Skills and Experience: Make sure you have some people in your group who already have some home improvement experience or at least some familiarity with tools and handy work. If you have a couple of people with actual construction experience or a background in electrical, plumbing, or other trades, all the better. That way those folks can teach the less experienced folks how to handle tools, plan projects, and stay safe. It’s fine to have others in the group who have little or no experience—they can learn from the more experienced members, or stick with the less skilled jobs. (Personally, I don’t climb ladders or use power tools, but I’m great at carrying stuff, painting, cleaning up, and getting lunch together.)
Establish Clear Expectations: When you ask someone to be part of your neighborhood work group, let them know exactly what will be expected of them, and make sure they’re prepared to commit to it. Some suggested guidelines are below; it’s great to put these in writing and distribute them so people can see in black and white what they’re getting themselves into.
The Maxwell Park Neighborhood Home Improvement Group
The home improvement group that I belong to, in Maxwell Park, Oakland (featured in my book The Sharing Solution) is a great example of a high-functioning group begun over the local neighborhood listserve. Here’s how it happened:
1. First Contact. My partner, Luan, who had been in a home improvement group before, sent out an email on the Maxwell Park listserve describing the purpose of the group and asking people to email her back if they were interested. She got about 30 responses.
2. Skills Assessment. Luan sent out a skills assessment sheet to everyone who responded. It asked for their level of experience with various tools and tasks; possible responses ranged from “Done it a lot,” to “Seen it done,” to “Don’t even know what that is.” She also gave people the opportunity to say what they were comfortable with, so that people could make a note, for example, that they don’t want to climb ladders (like me). The questionnaire also asked people what tools they owned, their preferences on frequency of getting together, what days were best, and the like.
3. Sorting. Once she got all the information back, Luan did the work of sorting folks into three groups, distributing skills so that there were people with all skill and experience levels in each group. She then picked one person from each group to be the starting “leader,” so that there would be someone to gather the group together for planning.
4. Setting up a Structure. Luan offered some ideas to the groups about how to create a structure:
- One project per month, rotating households in an agreed-upon order.
- Pick a regular date, like the third Sunday of the month.
- Exchange email addresses and phone numbers and agree on how communication will happen.
- Set clear starting and ending times, so people can plan their days around the project. In general, starting around 9 and finishing in the early to mid-afternoon, with a break for lunch, works well.
- The project household is responsible for planning the project and gathering all the necessary materials and for letting the other group members know what’s planned and what tools are needed, so that others can bring their own tools (for example, if it’s a gardening project, it’s easy for everyone to bring their own gardening gloves and other equipment). The host household should also provide morning coffee as well as a simple lunch, and plenty of water.
- Establish a schedule for the whole year—we have six households in our group, so we go April through October and we plan the whole summer in advance.
- Make agreements about participation. Our rule is that at least one person from each household has to show up at each work day in order to qualify to have work done on their house.
- Make agreements about what happens if someone misses their day. For example, we had one person who wasn’t ready for their project on the date planned for them. They ended up trading with someone else—but another family had the same issue and we couldn’t get the scheduling worked out, so they ended up forfeiting their turn. And last year there were two households with fence emergencies, and Luan and I ended up missing our turn—so we’ll go first this year.
Barnraising is Community-Raising
There were originally three groups in Maxwell Park, but ours is the only one still going, the others apparently having suffered from a lack of leadership. (It’s important that everyone in the group take responsibility for making things happen, or else delegate leadership to one person, if you’ve got someone willing to take that on.) Our group lost one household and gained another, and we’re going into our fifth year together in 2010. After all this time, we have a lot of camaraderie and a lot of trust, so we are able to be more flexible about scheduling and making changes than might be true for a newer group that’s just getting established.
I’m persuaded, now, that sharing the work with my neighbors is the way to a sense of community that’s worth a few blisters and is valuable way, way beyond the money we save by helping each other out. It makes me feel happier, safer, and more at home in my neighborhood—a part of something that’s connected and productive. It’s sharing at its sweetest, and I can’t wait to get that drip irrigation system in this year, and then sneak over to my neighbors’ houses and leave the extra zucchini on their front porches.
This article was written with input from Luan Stauss and attorney Janelle Orsi.