Boston Globe Front Page Feature
Photo: President and owner of Golden Builder Construction Tomasa Pujol at a residential job site in Dorchester. PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF
From the sound of things in some neighborhoods, you might not think the economic downturn has been all that severe in Massachusetts.
Saw blades are buzzing, nail guns are popping, and drills are spinning as contractors descend on home renovation projects in huge numbers. It’s a striking aberration in an economy in which many businesses continue to suffer and unemployment remains high.
The activity is also another indication of how unevenly the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has been distributed. Some homeowners ― often those whose incomes have not taken a hit ― have reduced costs for commuting, travel, and other expenses, giving them more discretionary income. At the same time, interest rates for home equity loans and mortgages are historically low, making it cheap to borrow money.
Many people have spent an unprecedented number of hours at home, giving them a clear-eyed understanding about what they love — and hate — about their residences.
“The pandemic, especially for people in the middle class and the upper middle class, has created this bubble,” said Chris Parish, a Franklin homeowner searching for a contractor who’s not too busy to take on a small bathroom renovation sometime soon. “We’re all thinking the same thing at the same time, which is we can’t go anywhere, so we should get the most out of the space.”
Contractors around Boston said they experienced a huge demand for services this summer that has extended into fall — especially for modest projects such as adding a backyard deck or a fence. The trend is helping to offset the loss of work builders suffered earlier in the year when larger commercial jobs were put on hold because of the pandemic lockdown.
So many homeowners are seeking quotes that some renovation pros say the main limitation on their businesses right now is time, or the lack of it. Work isn’t hard to come by, but fitting it all into the schedule is another challenge.
Tomasa Pujol, president of Golden Builder Construction in Quincy, has a piece of advice for people seeking home improvement services now: “You’ve got to be patient.”
Pujol said she’s booking a lot of residential work, inside and outside of homes around the Boston area. But some factors out of her control are getting in the way. Building permits are arriving slowly in many municipalities, she said, and materials — particularly lumber — are in short supply. That’s true in other fields, as well, because COVID-19 precautions have slowed factory work. A South Shore glass company, for example, said window orders that used to be filled in about 10 days are now taking six weeks or longer.
For homeowners who have decided to pull the trigger on long-put-off projects, the reality can be jarring.
Chris Parish said he’s been talking to contractors about having work done on the 170-year old A-frame Colonial he shares with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in Franklin.
The downstairs bathroom has always been an issue — a wall that juts out to enclose the shower creates a narrow passageway between the toilet and the sink — but after working from home for months, it’s become maddening. The family is considering selling not too long from now, he said, and expanding the bathroom could increase the home’s value.
But every contractor Parish has spoken with so far says he shouldn’t plan on getting the project done until sometime next year. They’ve told him it might be possible to knock out a small project sooner, such as a flooring fix Parish is considering, but nothing the size of a bathroom job.
All-told, Parish is looking to spend under $15,000 — not a huge price tag for a home renovation. But for many contractors, these smaller projects are providing the most business, according to industry research.
A survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that contractors in the second quarter of this year were more confident in the market for jobs below $20,000 than they were about landing higher-cost projects.
Most of those surveyed said their business had improved during the second quarter — April 1 to June 30 — according to the trade association. Meanwhile, estimates from the Census Bureau say sales of building materials, garden equipment, and other supplies for contractors and do-it-yourselfers were up 16.8 percent in June through August, compared with that same period in 2019 — even as many other retail categories suffered.
But there also are signals that the rapid interest might not last. A recent report by analysts at Oppenheimer & Co. warned that stronger-than-usual sales at Home Depot and Lowe’s could abate soon because homeowners may simply be accelerating expenditures they would have made anyway. Research this summer by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies predicted a slowdown in the coming year as “continued weakness in the broader economy due to the public health crisis” catches up with the industry.
And even if the small jobs fill the schedule, they don’t necessarily make up for the struggles that contractors have endured this year.
Janet B. Ceddia, president of Altair Construction in Newton, said her company saw $5.2 million in work pushed back or put on hold because of the pandemic. About 80 percent of that was commercial. So far, it has replaced $1.5 million of that business with a mix of work that is about 62 percent residential.
That means that despite the surge in interest, there’s still a lot of ground to make up. That’s harder to do with a lineup of smaller jobs in different locations. It requires crews to move around, tote equipment from one site to the next, manage complicated schedules, and pull more permits. Some tradespeople, such as electricians, are also harder to find, Ceddia said, because they are still staffing up after the shutdown.
Nonetheless, Ceddia said she’s happy to have the work ― Altair is taking on as many jobs as it can handle, and is scheduling into January. While the company is accepting a lot of outdoor jobs while the weather is warm, Ceddia said she is confident that Altair will be able to safely pull off indoor work in colder weather, even if cases of the coronavirus increase.
She hopes safety measures such as masks, temperature checks, and hand sanitizer will help keep workers safe and reassure customers.
“If there were a second wave, we now know a lot more,” she said.
For some homeowners, the traditionally nerve-wracking process of looking for a contractor seems even more daunting, given all of the uncertainty in the economy.
Amber Renberg has been looking for work in the meetings and events field since before the pandemic hit and is considering moving away and renting out her East Boston condo. But there are a few things she’d like to do before she decides to go that route. She said her bathroom, with cheap fixtures and a clunky design, will be a turnoff for prospective tenants.
She has contacted five contractors to provide quotes on a project she estimates at $10,000. Two have come to take a look, and she is waiting for their estimates. But she worries her projects aren’t lucrative enough to interest builders, given the demand.
“They’ll be smaller than it’s worth for them,” Renberg said. “It is frustrating to try and find the person to come in and do a smaller job like this.”