Remodel? Not so fast

Boom: Remodelers have seen their schedules fill up as the economy has picked up. Many are working on months-long backlogs.

November 07, 1999|By Mary E. Medland | Mary E. Medland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Thinking of renovating the kitchen in time for the holidays? Forget it.

How about enlarging the family room and adding a nice stone fireplace to welcome in the millennium? Doubtful. Very doubtful.

Or what about finishing the unfinished basement? Put it on the Christmas wish list for next year.

Many local remodelers are seeing business boom like it hasn't for years, and to even get someone to come out and give an estimate can be a two- to three-week, or longer, wait.

"I usually can turn around a quote on a job in five days, but most everyone is so inundated with work that they just can't get away to give a quote," said Dave Zimlin of Main Street Contractors, who expects the plethora of work to continue for at least another 12 months. "In terms of the amount of work, this is the busiest I have ever seen things."

Zimlin and others attribute the boom in remodeling to a number of influences, not the least of which is the current economy.

"People want things done right now, and they are willing to spend the money to complete the projects," Zimlin said, "whereas they were tighter with their finances in the past. . . . I can't really put a handle on precisely why that is, but I guess it is the stability of the economy."

Of course, in some ways, the wait is not such a bad thing. Remodelers freely admit that they pretty much become family members while the work is being done, and that a once-organized house is rapidly transformed into a construction site with workers showing up every day at 7 a.m.

"You really, really need to be very comfortable with the person who will be in and out of your house for several months," said Jay S. Van Deusen, of Bel Air's Van Deusen Construction. "Remodeling is nothing like new-home construction."

The pros advise repeatedly that homeowners considering renovations take their time and carefully do their homework to avoid potential migraines.

"Make sure you know what you want and what you will be getting," said Dwight Griffith, president of Griffith Brilhart Builders. "You need to be sure to hire the right person, otherwise things will become a night mare."

While Griffith freely acknowledges that, as a general rule of thumb, all remodelers seem to be busier than ever, it's a fluid industry, not an exact science.

"Still, things are busier than they've ever been and the past three years have been phenomenal," Griffith said.

Indeed, builders such as Van Deusen are in the enviable position of taking on only the projects that appeal to them. "It's hard to say `No,' " he noted, "but I've been saying that a lot lately."

His position is even more enviable in that Van Deusen will not bid against other remodelers.

Furthermore, like the established physician who's not taking on new patients, Van Deusen estimates that about 92 percent of the work he does is for past clients who have new projects they want him to take on.

If you call him out of the blue, you're likely to get turned down, although he is partial to new clients who are referred to him by past customers.

The situation is about the same for Zimlin. "I'm not going on any new appointments," he said. "My whole business is based on referrals and repeat customers."

Stuart Cohen found Van Deusen through a referral two years ago when he and his family decided to remodel their Darlington home.

The Cohen project included digging a basement and adding two levels of living space above it as well as constructing sitting porches on the perimeter of the home. The design work on the Cohen home, built in the 1930s, didn't begin until February 1998 and actual construction got under way in October 1998.

"By the time we finished in April 1999, we had more than doubled the size of our home," Cohen said. "It was a much more extensive project than building a house."

Not surprisingly, there are a number of reasons other than just great demand for the delays in remodeling, not all of which are positive.

"There is a serious lack of skilled labor in the trade, which delays schedules," said Mark Redman, of Redman Structures Inc. in Clarksville. "With us, we're probably working on a two- to three-month backlog, and that has been the norm for the past year and a half."

In an effort to ease the pinch, Redman is scheduling electricians and plumbers well in advance of actual need. "It's much harder to keep the schedule on target than it was a few years ago," he added.

Van Deusen agreed.

"There are delays because we're having problems getting qualified labor, and we are always trying to find good subcontractors," Van Deusen said.

The difficulty -- and expense -- in getting materials, such as drywall, bricks, mortar and insulation, is exacerbating delays.

"There's a building boom in new construction throughout the country, and that's adding to delays," Van Deusen said.

Mother Nature can also slow things down. "The completion time is always longer in the winter," Van Deusen said.

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