Washington area homeowners will soon be offered a chance to pay $50 a year to join a group that bills itself as the AAA for homeowners.
Started by former Red Cross public relations director James H. MacLeod, the American Home Association says it will provide members with "reputable and bonded repair service" for regular and emergency home repairs, just as the American Automobile Association provides help for motorists. AHA also plans to publish a magazine, as AAA does.
But consumers should not be misled by the comparison to the not-for-profit AAA or by the name that AHA has given itself.
AHA is a profit-making venture that hopes to make money from membership fees and from magazine advertising. And MacLeod said AHA might make money from insurance programs offered to members in the future.
None of that is spelled out in the mailings that AHA has prepared to send to 600,000 owners of single-family homes, condominiums and town houses in the area during the next several months. Instead, the company's brightly colored marketing pamphlet emphasizes the emergency help that the AHA offers when members' pipes burst at 2 a.m., when they have accidentally locked themselves out of their home or when the air conditioning fails.
As an AHA member, MacLeod said, "You only have to make a single telephone call" to the AHA hot line. AHA then will have one of its "network of veteran service companies" make arrangements for repairs.
Although the homeowner will still have to pay for the company's services, when a call qualifies as an emergency that "perils health, personal property or the dwelling if not attended to promptly," the member can apply for a $25 refund from AHA. Nonemergency repair calls don't qualify for refunds.
The promotional material says that AHA will provide counseling for members on their insurance needs and will "speak out for the rights of American homeowners" at legislative hearings.
The ideas seem promising. And MacLeod, outlining them at a press conference this week, seemed sincere. "I'm most enthusiastic about this," he said. "And if I have to go out there to a home with a hammer and a nail myself, I will . . . . "
At this point, however, the AHA is barely more than a gleam in MacLeod's eye. He has a staff of 11, an office in McLean and a network of 65 to 75 contractors that he handpicked. One of them, Preston L. Walker of Walker Electric Inc., also serves as chairman of the AHA board. Other board members include retired Army major general Lloyd B. Ramsey, who is the chairman of the board of McLean Savings & Loan, and Marshall C. McClean, vice president of E.F. Hutton & Co.
MacLeod said his goal is to sign up as many as 18,000 homeowners as members in the next six months. That would provide AHA with nearly $1 million, not counting magazine advertising revenue.
Herbert Boback, who handles the home improvement section of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, came away from the press conference with these impressions:
* "I'm not certain that his selection of contractors was all that objective. I assume he checked to make sure they were all bonded and licensed."
* "If there isn't an emergency, it is a good idea for consumers to get estimates from three contractors and check their credentials."
* "AHA could provide a worthwhile service for consumers, if it works according to the way they explained it. But it is a new business and it could fail, and if that happens, the members could lose their $50."