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Homeowners Remodel To Ride Out Pandemic in Comfort

Shelley Beatty had been planning a major remodel of her home for more than a year, and she wasn’t going to let the deadly coronavirus pandemic get in the way. She was determined to create a roomier home in the Kansas City suburbs to accommodate her three children, their spouses, and her eight grandkids when they visit for extended holidays and vacations.

But when Beatty, 67, a part-time accountant, and her husband, an emergency room doctor, learned of the COVID-19 outbreaks earlier this year, she made some changes to her plans for a $300,000 renovation of their seven-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home in Fairway, KS. Now, not only did she want the new kitchen and dining room to accommodate big, boisterous family gatherings, it also had to stand up to constant cleaning to combat the coronavirus.

So she opted for quartz instead of a granite countertop. Instead of stone or textured floor tile, she went with smooth ceramic.

Despite dire predictions from home improvement experts amid high unemployment, a struggling economy, and health concerns, people are still investing in upgrading their homes—and it’s keeping the remodeling  industry surprisingly strong.

Homeowners are undertaking new projects or adding to ongoing ones—albeit with some alterations. These days, people want home offices for remote work, learning space for online classes, spacious kitchens for home dining, and more space in general in this new, socially distanced reality.

More than half of homeowners who were in the middle of renovations when a global pandemic was declared on March 11 went ahead with their projects, according to a survey from the website Houzz, polling nearly 1,000 U.S. homeowners. Only 1% of those in the middle of a project canceled work. Contractors say that wealthier clients are going ahead with their plans, while those with lower incomes are postponing or canceling their remodeling projects.

“Things are not as terrible as we were thinking,” says Paul Emrath, an economist at the National Association of Home Builders. But the outlook for the rest of the year, he adds, depends in large part on whether the pandemic is contained.

In April, 96% of contractors surveyed by NAHB reported fewer inquiries for new projects and 93% said homeowners were pausing their remodeling plans. That’s likely due to health and financial concerns, as well as laws in certain cities and states prohibiting remodelers from working if they weren’t designated essential businesses. However, business began picking up again in April and has continued to do so as more states reopen. The organization predicts remodeling sales will rebound to 2019 levels by the beginning of next year.

Of course, there are challenges and health precautions are necessary. Beatty, who has a pacemaker and suffers from asthma, worked in a spare bedroom on the second floor of her home that was transformed into an office. That gave her some space from the contractors on the first floor who were tearing out walls separating rooms downstairs and installing new hardwood flooring.

When she spoke with the workers, she wore a mask and they stood at least 6 feet apart. After they left for the day, she would clean the surfaces with disinfectant wipes.

“I knew exactly what I wanted, and I went for it,” Beatty says. The work is nearly done so she’s planning for her children and grandchildren to spend a part of the summer in her newly expanded home and backyard with a pool.

“I can stay here with everyone I want to be with right here,” she says. “My family can come and be together.”

Confined at home, owners dream of making changes

The Beattys aren’t alone. Almost 80% of respondents in the Houzz survey said they were “dreaming” about pursuing home projects that would let them enjoy their homes more. Their top priorities were outdoor amenities, new bathrooms, and remodeled kitchens. Nine in 10 of those who dream about improving their homes said they plan to do so after the pandemic subsides.

“People have had this time at home and think ‘I love this place, I love this house, but I hate this room,'”says William Brackmann, president of Brackmann Construction in Belton, MO. His company is remodeling the Beattys’ home. “So, they’ll call someone to remedy the situation.”

Before COVID-19, many homeowners were content to use their dining tables, coffee tables in front of TVs, or spare bedrooms as temporary workspaces. But with more white-collar Americans working full time at home, they’re increasingly coveting home offices. They’re seeking more privacy and soundproofing for business calls and video meetings, and more sophisticated technology to support all their equipment.

“If you’re having a videoconference, it’s cute when the 5-year-old comes in and wants to go to potty,” says Brackmann. “But if that’s your normal business routine, it’s not so cute anymore.”

In May, Brackmann received six requests for estimates for finished basements with home offices—more than he usually gets in a year. A home office can be as simple as a space with bookshelves with a built-in desk, or a more elaborate, executive suite–size room with desks, cabinets, bookshelves, computer tables, and showy shadowboxes for memorabilia.

The pandemic has changed how people use their homes in other ways. Kitchens are becoming even more of a focal point, says Tim Shigley, a remodeler based in Wichita, KS.

Not only are people cooking more, but many who have young children find themselves setting up makeshift classrooms there as well as entertainment space for hobbies, games, and TV watching.

For one couple, who now find themselves home-schooling their young children, Shigley suggested they scrap their idea of having one large island in the kitchen and install two smaller ones. One can be used for food prep and dining. The other can be reserved for schoolwork, games, and other activities.

But the outlook for the rest of the year is uncertain

While it looks like the renovation industry will be spared much of the pain it was expecting, that doesn’t mean it’s all roses.

The remodeling market was slowing down even before COVID-19, says Abbe Will, a research associate at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. The industry grew 4.7% annually in 2019, a little lower than the historic average. That was due to a shortage of homes on the market combined with escalating prices, which has made it harder for many folks to become homeowners. And the widespread economic pain of today could lead to less activity going forward.

However, that could be offset by the pent-up demand from homeowners desperate to adapt their spaces or replace old roofs, windows, and heating and air-conditioning systems.

“You can only put off those projects for so long,” says Will. She expects the industry to dip just slightly, remaining basically flat over the next few quarters.

Economics professor Jerry Schiff and his wife, who life in Chevy Chase, MD, started a $40,000 basement remodel in late January, when news of the coronavirus outbreak in China made headlines.

As the project continued in February, Schiff, 62, says he was getting concerned about the health implications. The couple decided they didn’t want to stop halfway through the project: They took precautions, including masks and disinfectants, and finished remodeling the two basement bathrooms in May.

“The project came out well,” Schiff says. And despite the couple’s moments of doubt along the way, “We’re happy it’s done.”

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