Traveling home-builder

Published 11:08 am Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Freeborn-Mower Habitat For Humanity affiliate has a new volunteer … for awhile.

So impressed were the volunteers working on a new house at 800 Seventh Ave. N.E., they insisted he make himself known to the entire community.

Meet Bill Kleinegger, part gypsy, part baker, part handyman and all for Habitat For Humanity.

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Kleinegger is a native of New York City who grew up in Austria.

“He did various things in the United States, but during the Great Depression there was absolutely no work,” Kleinegger said. “He returned to Austria because my grandfather owned a shoemaker’s supply store and my grandfather wanted to retire.”

When Kleinegger’s family arrived in Austria, his grandfather changed his mind about retiring, leaving the man to fend for himself.

Kleinegger’s mother showed ingenuity: She sewed men’s neckties.

He has an older brother who was born in Austria and a sister who, like him, was born in the United States.

Before retiring, Kleinegger installed and maintained corporate and educational television facilities.

“I saw some fascinating places,” he said. “I was actually inside a nuclear reactor in Massachusetts while the reactor was open for serving and an inspection of the fuel rods.”

It’s stories like that which endear Kleinegger to his local affiliate co-workers and stories while propel his curiosity about the next stop his 32-foot motorhome will make.

Kleinegger retired in the mid-1990s and bought a Freightliner motorhome and took to the nation’s roads as a Habitat For Humanity “Care–A-Vanner.”

Habitat for Humanity International’s RV Care-A-Vanner program offers anyone who travels in a recreational vehicle the opportunity to make a difference — and have fun while doing it — by helping build houses with families in need. The RV Care-A-Vanner program welcomes people of all ages and from all walks of life who are ready to pick up a hammer and help change lives.

According to the organization, every RV Care-A-Vanner building project is a unique and rewarding experience.

“I have been doing Habitat work since 1997,” he said. “My first build was in Connecticut and the second build was in Greely, Colo.

“We were called ‘gypsies’ then,” he said. “We had a group of at least 20 rigs who traveled to different cities for different builds.”

Building homes all over world

Kleinegger is a part of an organization who can do no wrong.

Habitat For Humanity International (HFHI) is an international, ecumenical Christian, non-governmental, non-profit organization devoted to building “simple, decent and affordable” housing. Homes are built using volunteer labor and are sold at no profit. In many locations, Habitat for Humanity charges interest to protect against inflation. This policy has been in place since 1986.

By 2004, Habitat had built 50,000 houses in the U.S. and more than 175,100 around the world, with Habitat groups working in more than 100 countries. Although headquartered in the United States, two-thirds of Habitat construction takes place in foreign countries. In 2005 Habitat built its 200,000th house, bringing the number of people sheltered in Habitat houses worldwide to one million.

Kleinegger lives in his motorhome. He sold his home and made a motorhome his residence.

A bachelor, Kleinegger has customized his motorhome to fit his needs. For instance, there is a bread baking oven in the kitchen area.

He has traveled to more than 70 builds in little more than three years time on the road.

“I have been a part of a build from the very, very beginning to the very, very end,” he said in a pronounced Austrian accent. “I helped put sheetrock up on the inside and helped with painting and I have also been there to lay the sub-floor down and helped with the building the cement block wall in a basement. I’ve been at all stages in the building of a house.”

Kleinegger is a self-taught carpenter and travels with the tools he needs at a build, including a ladder; an item always in short supply at building sites.

“For me, I love being useful,” he said of his Habitat volunteering. “I love building.

“The pay is great: double time on Saturdays and triple time on Sundays,” he joked. “Of course, double- or triple-nothing is still nothing.

“You meet lots of wonderful people and make lots of wonderful friends,” he said. “I have friends whom I met, like the lady in Greely, Colo. who I met in 1997 that I still see once a year.”

He had visited 11 states before coming to Minnesota for this week’s build.

“Many times you go to a state or a city where they have several builds going on at the same time,” he said.

One of his trips took him to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast to help rebuild homes damages by Hurricane Katrina.

‘Catch 22’ on the road

To be sure, his giant Freightliner motorhome burns gas to get Kleinegger to the next destination, where he will stay for a few days and work for no pay.

When he files his federal income tax and attempts to claim mileage expenses, there’s a Catch 22 involved.

“The IRS determines how much travel expenses can be deducted,” he said. “It turns out to be 54 cents a mile.

“For volunteering, Congress sets the limit,” he added. “Like less than one-third of the IRS amount. It turns out people who volunteer for Meals on Wheels actually lose money when they drive for them,” he said.

“It’s obscene: a businessman can deduct 54 cents a mile and a volunteer can deduct only 14 cents a mile,” he said.

After Austin, Kleinegger plans to return to New York to re-register his motorhome, visit his daughters and have his annual health checkups.

Then, who knows?

Wherever the road and his curiosity takes him.

What’s his greatest satisfaction about building Habitat homes?

“It’s meeting the people and I’m not hesitant to say: After work and the happy hour, swapping stories, sitting around and making small talk and just getting to know each other,” he said.