How Covid Changed Home Renovations—and What You Need to Know if You're Starting One

January 1, 2023

How Covid Changed Home Renovations—and What You Need to Know if You're Starting One

1. Changes are inevitable.

First and foremost, hire a team you trust. (Ignoring your misgivings and hoping for the best is the wrong move.) Beyond that, Narvaez says an open mind and a little flexibility are the best client attributes of a successful project today. “When the client is very rigid about the plan, that’s when we have a lot of issues,” she says. How flexible do you need to be? Narvaez says she hopes her clients remain open to shifting anything from vendors to layouts to timelines.

“Let’s say we planned for 18-inch cabinets, but those are out of stock—let’s try it with 15-inch or 12-inch cabinets instead if those are available. It might change things a bit on that wall of cabinets, but it can be done.” Most of all, have realistic expectations. These days, that means expecting delays. “Understand that it’s as frustrating to us when things are delayed,” adds Nashville contractor Elizabeth Scruggs. “If we have one job that goes off schedule, it’ll push all 10 or 20 of our jobs off-schedule. We are working 10 times as hard on the backend that homeowners don’t see to keep everything going smoothly.”

2. Pros are booked out.

In-demand pros are booked out at least three months before they can even start your project—and then the clock starts again as you wait for your orders. Across the country, contractors reported that they are booked solid for six months to a year out—and that clients should be wary of anyone who isn’t booked up, even in markets that might not seem to be booming. Once you connect with a pro, you likely won’t be rushing right into breaking ground. “I usually have to start talking to a client 6 months before they want to start,” says Washington, D.C.–based contractor Gabriela Narvaez, who specializes in historic home remodels that add function but not square footage. Gilchrist agrees: “By the time homeowners get the money, they want the job to start tomorrow, but it doesn’t work like that. “I wish they would reach out while they’re thinking about the project.”

3. Ambition wins the bid.

Plenty of homeowners are going all-out on their renovations—and with mortgage interest rates increasing, analysts project that more people will be inclined to invest in their current home instead of trading up, meaning the renovation boom (and busy pros) is likely here to stay. Contractors report that in addition to going big, their clients are increasingly getting super personal with the details in their homes. (One recently finished building a hidden wine room.) What does that mean for you? Because of the demand, contractors are now more picky about what projects they take—choosing the jobs that are most interesting and fulfilling rather than saying yes to everything. If you have an adequate budget, pursuing the most ambitious version of your project may make it easier to land your favorite pro.

4. The surge is here to stay.

Plenty of homeowners are going all out on their renovations, and with mortgage interest rates increasing, analysts project that more people will be inclined to invest in their current home instead of trading up. Those busy pros aren’t going to free up soon.

5. There’s no advantage to waiting.

Only you know your finances, but contractors universally said that if you’ve been thinking about jumping into a renovation but were scared off by the pandemic-related shifts, now is probably the moment to dive in. “It might not be the best time to buy a house because interest rates are high, but if you have a HELOC and some additional disposable income, I would suggest you renovate now,” says Narvaez.

6. There’s a wait list.

The work itself probably won’t take much longer than it used to before Covid, but you’ll have a lot more waiting to do before you start—and that’s what’s still difficult to pin down or predict. Lead times are shrinking slowly, but you’ll want to make major decisions about big-ticket items early on so that you can order components like windows, masonry, appliances and cabinets, which all take longer than they used to. For the most part, today’s market isn’t the nightmare it was a year ago. One contractor cited cabinetry that used to take 5 to 8 weeks (but spiked to 25 weeks or more during Covid) as a perfect example—it is now reliably coming within 9 to 12 weeks, just as the manufacturer projected.

7. Delays still happen.

Delays also aren’t always caused by what you’d think—even if most of the materials are in, a seemingly minor missing piece can hold up construction for weeks on end. That’s exactly what happened to Washington, D.C.–based contractor, designer and real estate broker Keisha Gilchrist on a recent job: “The material for the floors came on the Friday as scheduled, but the thresholds and stair noses didn't come until seven days later, which delayed the project more than a week.”

To save clients money (and to maximize time with in-demand subcontractors), pros are also often deciding to wait until all materials are in and ready before breaking ground or starting demolition, which means the team can work as smoothly and continuously as possible once the project is underway. While that can seem frustrating, it’s better than tearing out your bathroom, getting halfway done, realizing something isn’t in yet—and then having to get back in line to get on a tradesperson’s schedule. Plus, there’s a lot more sitting and waiting in the planning phase, too, whether you’re waiting for a contractor or a crew to become available.

The work itself probably won’t take much longer than it used to before Covid, but you’ll have a lot more waiting to do before you start—and that’s what’s still difficult to pin down or predict. Lead times are shrinking slowly, but you’ll want to make major decisions about big-ticket items early on so that you can order components like windows, masonry, appliances and cabinets, which all take longer than they used to. For the most part, today’s market isn’t the nightmare it was a year ago. One contractor cited cabinetry that used to take 5 to 8 weeks (but spiked to 25 weeks or more during Covid) as a perfect example—it is now reliably coming within 9 to 12 weeks, just as the manufacturer projected.

9. Some material costs are steadying.

According to the NAHB, “Building material prices have risen 33 percent since the start of the pandemic.” But many, including concrete block and brick, seem to have stabilized.

10. But lumber isn’t.

Lumber costs are still higher than in 2020, but not as bad as the worst pandemic rates, which skyrocketed to an all-time peak in May 2021, then spiked again in early 2022. (It got so bad that one contractor reportedly saw a builder framing homes with cabinet-grade wood because builder-grade plywood was so pricey.) Costs have come down since then, but contractors estimate that lumber alone will still cost 20 to 30 percent more than 2019.

8. But lead times are normalizing.

Source: House Beautiful, Kaitlin Petersen


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