Contractors are booked until next year. Some phone calls are never returned. Gone are the days when homeowners could pick one of several bids to do their job.
Remodeling has become a favorite way for the nation's baby boomers to spend their money. And since everyone is doing it, it's getting harder and harder to do.
You never hear homeowners complaining about badly finished remodeling jobs anymore. They're all too busy looking for someone to do the work. Or waiting months for the contractor to get to them.
The average age of an American house is 30 years, and Americans are fixing their houses up, adapting them to today's lifestyles, in greater numbers than ever. More than one-third of the country's households--25 million--are expected to spend up to $175 billion on house remodeling this year, forecasts show.
Remodeling spending nationwide increased 3 percent in 1998. Spending in the first quarter of this year also was up sharply, compared with last year. So, this year will significantly top last year's growth, forecasters predict.
Helping to fuel this appetite for remodeling is that interest rates on home-equity loans have declined, even as mortgage rates have risen.
And the Washington area's baby boomers are up there with the hardiest of the nation's spenders.
"This is our best year ever," said Mark Richardson, president of Case Design-Remodeling, the biggest remodeling company in the area, with offices in Falls Church and Bethesda. "We'll do $18 million in gross volume this year. The number of clients and the amount of work have both shot up."
But as homeowners dip into their home-equity lines, dreaming of sun rooms and sunken tubs, they're discovering that what's good for remodeling companies isn't necessarily good for the consumer. Stepped-up demand has meant long lead times on jobs, big deposits to get contractors to commit to the work, unanswered phone calls and contractors who are less than amenable to cutting prices.
The notion that a homeowner might have to get contractors to bid on a remodeling project is outdated, remodelers said.
"Before, we would bid competitively for jobs," said Ted Peterson, co-owner of Peterson and Collins, a general contractor based in Adams-Morgan in Northwest Washington. "Now, we're fortunate enough to have a good enough reputation, with a good backlog of work, that we don't need to do that anymore."
Translation: No need to bid for work; have more work than we know what to do with.
"The consumer is taking the hit on this one," said Kermit Baker from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "There are few alternatives if you want to improve your home. And our studies show that most Americans would prefer to stay put in their neighborhood and improve their current home rather than change to a different home in the same city."
The most comprehensive study ever on national remodeling trends was released by the Harvard housing studies center in late March after three years of study. The report, "Improving America's Housing," said the remodeling industry rivals home building in size and accounts for about 2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. It found that household composition and income are the two key factors influencing remodeling spending.
Eleven percent of households with incomes of $100,000 or more account for almost one-fourth of all renovation spending, the study showed. Trade-up buyers spent the most on remodeling within the first 24 months after purchasing a house. The longer the trade-up buyers lived in their houses, the less likely they were to remodel.
First-time buyers, often strapped for cash, caught up in their spending after the first two years, the study showed.
The types of households most likely to remodel are married couples with young children, who often invest in additions to expand living space to accommodate growing families. The birth of a child is one of the major motivations for remodeling.
Consider the case of Linda Weiss, who lives with her husband and two teenagers in the Fox Hills area of Potomac.
She recently finished the third renovation on her house in 19 years, a two-story addition extending her son's bedroom, adding a bathroom upstairs and a study on the first floor for her husband. This renovation, which will cost almost $90,000, is the most expensive of all three, she said.
As her children got older, Weiss first finished the basement and then later remodeled the kitchen, laundry room and master bath. She was in a good school district and didn't want to move the children from their friends.
When she wanted to start this latest renovation job, she called the contractor who finished her basement eight years ago. He had done a good job then and was her first choice for the latest renovation.
"He was just so busy he told me he couldn't get to it at all," Weiss said. " 'Please find someone else that can do the job for you,' he told me." She turned to Case Remodeling, which because of its size has about a two-month lead time, compared with smaller contracting firms, many of which have backlogs of eight to nine months.
The Harvard study showed that about 70 percent of the nation's remodeling contractors are self-employed individuals. "The majority of remodelers are just two guys and a hammer," said Paul Deffenbaugh, editor-in-chief of Remodeling Magazine. "There are thousands and thousands of guys in this country working out of pickup trucks who may or may not be any good."
Local contractors are reporting that workers looking for construction jobs are coming to the Washington area from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and North Carolina. They are lured by reports of the remodeling boom.
And no matter where they come from, they're busy.
"Remodelers could produce more than they are but they can't find plumbers, carpenters or electricians to do the work," Deffenbaugh said.
Jerry Levine, co-owner of Silver Spring-based Wentworth-Levine Architect Builder Inc., said his business has increased 100 percent over the past five years. It could increase more if he could only find more qualified people to work for him.
"In this environment, it's really a question of how much business we can handle," Levine said. "We don't want to sink our own ship. Our internal structure has already been pushed to the limit and then some. There aren't any architects to come work for us, and the market for highly skilled, personable carpenters is difficult."
Steve Gill, the owner of a Woodbridge-based television production company, is benefiting from the problem. This week Gill was working at a major renovation on Military Road in north Arlington, freelancing as a carpenter between television contracts.
"There's a ton of this work," said Gill, hammer hanging from his dust-covered shorts. "It's great for me. You don't get rich doing this, but it pays the bills between TV jobs." Gill said he picked up carpentry by doing odd jobs as a teenager.
The house on which Gill is working is being renovated quickly because it was bought by a building company that wanted it fixed up and sold. It's a classic Arlington rambler that is being turned into a center-hall Colonial through a "pop-up" renovation. Pop-up renovations involve putting a second floor on a rambler and adding a central staircase. Such houses are popular in rambler-rich Arlington.
Besides the shortage of workers, there also is a shortage of materials, in particular drywall. Drywall, also known as wallboard or by the brand name Sheetrock, is basically dried gypsum plaster sandwiched between heavy paper. It long ago replaced plaster for interior walls.
"We've been 'on allocation' for a year or more," said Jeff Poole, vice president of the company that owns Smoot Lumber, an Alexandria-based building supply store. "All the major manufacturers have us and the Home Depots of the world on allocation. You can only get as much drywall as you did last year.
"But our business has increased, so we cannot get enough based on current demand," Poole said. Besides the drywall shortage, Poole said delivery of a product that is in stock has been difficult.
"One of our window suppliers told us they had 10 trucks sitting there waiting to deliver material, but only five drivers," he said.
Prices have shot up along with the shortages, remodelers said. A project that five years ago would have cost $150,000 now costs about $200,000, said Mark Goldsborough, president of Mitchell, Best & Goldsborough Inc., an area building and design company.
"Five years ago, I would've paid a carpenter $15 an hour. Now he's $25 to $30 an hour," Goldsborough said. "There's a lot less horror stories out there about remodeling jobs. Now, everyone's complaining about prices and how they can't find anyone."
But whatever the problems associated with remodeling, Washington homeowners still are doing it as fast as they can find a contractor.
Tom Conrad, a film producer, recently enlarged his kitchen and put a porch addition on his $2.5 million house in Potomac, which previously was owned by the boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. "We felt the kitchen was outdated," Conrad said. "Now it's a big expansive kitchen with a beautiful big island in the middle. And it's got beautiful arched windows overlooking the horse farm behind our house."
Whatever people spend their money on, experts say the best remodeling project is simply adding what the house needs the most.
"The best remodeling project is one that addresses whatever weakness the house has," said Russ Glickman, of the Rockville-based Glickman Signature Design and Remodeling. "It's whatever someone walking through the house notices first.
"The worst project is something that a client throws money into that someone else will not see as any additional benefit," Glickman said. "Like changing the cabinets in a kitchen that are perfectly fine but the new owner just doesn't like their color.
"And the very best thing you can put your money into is enhancing your house's curb appeal," he said. "If the house has poor curb appeal, the best thing to do is fix it."
Hammering Home a Point: Money Talks
So what can a homeowner do to move to the top of a remodeling contractor's long list of waiting customers?
Only one thing can help: money.
Assuming you've already checked the contractor's references, pay the requested deposit money when the contractor wants it to increase your chances of moving up the jobs list. Or better yet, pay a bigger deposit.
"One guy who gave us a $25,000 deposit bumped someone else off the list who had only given us $1,000," said Russ Glickman, president of Glickman Signature Design and Remodeling in Rockville. "I told the [second] guy he'd have to give a larger deposit. Now the soonest I'll be able to get to him is mid-October. The man who paid got the July slot."
And if you're really in a hurry, just offer more than the contractor's price.
Curb Appeal Development of Delaplane, Va., a two-man remodeling company, is booked up until next year, except for smaller jobs that can be done in a few days. But there is a way to get John Inman and Lynn Rohrbaugh over to your house more quickly:
"If someone wants to pay 30 percent over my price, I'll be there Monday," Inman said. "Money talks in this business."
CAPTION: Kenny Love of Wentworth-Levine works on an addition to a house in Vienna. The firm's business has increased 100 percent in five years.