Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
Before the first of these blog posts appeared in February 2020, I settled on a schedule of what I’d be writing about for the initial few months. The topics seemed appropriate, especially for spring, when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of home improvement projects, then baseball and, perhaps, love.
But COVID-19, and the restrictions designed to limit its spread, continue to affect daily life, including the remodeling industry. Since the experts are saying that the problem won’t be going away quickly, I have decided to first share some ways the pandemic is impacting the way we use our homes, and then tackle the planned topic.
This time, COVID-19 and the planned topic are, unfortunately, related: What are the things that can delay the completion of a remodeling project?
The one thing that sheltering in place seems to have revealed is that we don’t know very much about our houses. It makes sense since, before the pandemic, we didn’t spend much time at home.
Consider the kitchen. How many people do you know use their kitchens regularly? The routine typically has been cereal and coffee in the morning, no one home for lunch, and a quick dinner or takeaway Chinese, Indian or pizza at night.
The common complaint before the pandemic was that families were so overbooked that the concept of a sit-down dinner was as out-of-date as an orange juicer.
Then came mid-March 2020. The typical American family was forced to cook and eat together, three meals a day, seven days a week, except when they could find a restaurant or pizzeria that delivered and thus were able to give the stove a rest.
There was a shortage of flour and yeast for the first several weeks as people who couldn’t even find the switch for the oven light began baking bread.
There are more examples, of course, but what the experts are saying is that many homeowners are dissatisfied with their living arrangements. Familiarity, apparently, is breeding contempt, and a growing number of homeowners are looking for ways to reach an accommodation with those four walls.
The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors recently published an interview with Anastasia Laudermilch, owner of Interiors by Anastasia in Anneville, Lebanon County, Pa., who talked about her recent dealings with homeowners.
“I’ve seen a real desire for people who want to update what they have. Being cooped in makes people want to make their homes the best they can be,” Laudermilch says.
“I want to take people’s homes to the next level. I want to go beyond just decorating, like new furniture and accessories. Hopefully, you already have that. I think for anyone, you could have the worst home, no architecture and less-than-desirable furniture, but with great accessories, I can make it look good,” she says.
Maybe, maybe not. In the last 53 years, I have interviewed thousands of homeowners, and I can say without fear of contradiction that I have rarely come across any two people who want the same thing, even if they live in the same house.
I think that the changes that dissatisfied homeowners are seeking won’t be met by a new couch. I do think that the hoarding of toilet paper, all-purpose flour and fast-acting yeast that marked the early days of the pandemic did convince many of the need for more storage space.
There’s never enough storage anyway. At least that’s what most homeowners have been saying since B.J.’s and Sam’s Place entered the American household vocabulary.
Before the pandemic, a Realtor.com survey of Internet search terms uncovered some trends among homebuyers that may be even in greater demand as COVID-19 and stay-at-home lingers.
The most-popular terms were pools, water views, and – surprise, surprise — storage space. Many Americans are searching for features that can include additional housing for other generations, like “granny pods,” along with housing extracurricular activities such as “man-caves” and “she-sheds.”
The coronavirus has had a couple of other effects on the housing industry.
Millennials, whose college debt has tended to keep them out of homeownership, have taken a huge financial hit because of the pandemic.
Before COVID-19, the typical millennial had less than $500 in disposable income, Realtor.com reports. If they used one month’s living expenses from savings to cover salary losses caused by the pandemic, it will take them nine months to reach what they had in the bank to begin with. Even that would require aggressive savings of 10 percent per month of their take-home pay.
For the millennials who were able to afford a house before the pandemic, any work to make improvements will likely be unaffordable for a long time.
Finally, the assistant manager of my real estate office sent out an email recently on behalf of HGTV, whichis currently casting now for a new show based on buying a home without ever seeing it in person.
After three years on the Discovery Channel’s Home Matters show, my response was “been there, done that,” but the point is this: Unless you have absolutely no choice, never buy a house without seeing it in person.
I don’t care how good your agent is, how honest and upfront the seller is, or how competent the home inspector is. There are questions only a personal visit can answer, such as room size, condition of the surfaces – a host of things – that will reduce the chance of buyer remorse.
I’m not sure how many of you were in the middle of remodeling projects when the shelter-in-place rules were put in place. If construction operations were limited or shut down as part of efforts to limit the numbers of COVID-19 cases and reduce pressure on hospitals, then you probably experienced delays.
Delays are possible in a remodeling job, pandemic or not. “Likely” would be a more appropriate word than “possible” since, in all my years of writing about real estate and home improvement, I have never heard of a job ending on time.
I reached back into The Philadelphia Inquirer archives and came across the words “contractor delays” several times in every year from 1893 to 2020.
But don’t blame the contractor. Delays are, more often than not, beyond the contractor’s control. If he or she informs you immediately after learning of a problem that may or will result in a delay, the contractor is meeting his or her contractual obligations to you.
It is all in the details, and if you don’t cover all the bases when planning a project, completion dates will change. I don’t know when we became a nation of “it will be OK” people who assume that everything will go as planned. I think that the solution to delays may be to build additional time into the project to cover such contingencies.
We also need to talk about the importance of communication. The lines of communication must be open all of the time. If your contractor has a question about some aspect of the project and you don’t respond immediately, time will likely stand still.
The reverse is true. If a client wants something changed and doesn’t tell the contractor in advance – a light fixture in the dining room should be in the living room, and vice versa – and the contractor goes ahead and install those fixtures and then has to move them, time will be lost.
Make sure that materials are ordered well in advance of the installation date. For example, kitchen cabinets often take eight to 10 weeks from the time you order them to arrive. Custom windows usually take four to six weeks.
Always make sure that what you have ordered is in stock. If the item is on backorder, try to get the supplier to commit to a delivery date. Try dealing with big suppliers who are more likely to have what you need on hand and are experienced enough to be to obtain missing materials for delivery quickly.
Inspections are necessary for almost every construction project. If the work performed to date doesn’t pass inspection, it will have to be redone and re-inspected, in many cases, before the project can proceed. These kinds of problems will add big costs.
One way to avoid inspection delays is to hire a contractor who has a good working relationship with the municipal building department. Together, the contractor and inspectors can develop a workable timetable for completion of work and of necessary inspections.
Have the contractor handle the permitting process to avoid any problems.
When thinking of completion dates, consider the fact that the contractor depends on subcontractors whose schedules may not fit your project deadlines.
A remodeling contractor I hired to redo our master bath used a plumber as a subcontractor on several projects, including ours. The contractor never asked the plumber how booked he was on his other jobs, so when the time came for him to show up at our house, he wasn’t available.
We lost four days. When the plumber did arrive, he found flaws with the original plumbing that had to be corrected before the project could proceed – resulting in the loss of five more days.
Let’s not forget about the weather.
If the project is a deck or a roof, rain can be a factor. The same with exterior painting, which also can be affected by heat, high humidity, and wind. Severe summer storms or February blizzards can stop deliveries of necessary materials for days and even weeks.
A successful project depends on everyone involved being on the same page from planning to completion. Remember: It is all in the details.