Whatcom homeowners do their homework before diving into major home projects

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 17, 2014 

More homeowners today know what they want in a major remodel, and that's making local construction companies very happy.

Their happiness reflects two recent trends related to home projects. On the idea side, thanks to the Internet and to the popularity of home improvement TV shows, more people have specific ideas about what they want in, say, a remodeled bathroom or kitchen. On the demand side, more people are committing to projects as their confidence in the economy returns.

Tony Moceri of Moceri Construction, in Bellingham, has noticed a general increase in home remodeling projects the past two years, with a big increase the last two months of 2013.

"There is more confidence in the economy, which I think is the biggest thing, along with low interest rates and banks willing to make loans," he said at the end of December.

Bellingham building permits show an uptick in home remodeling. Through the first 10 months of 2013, residential remodel permits had a projected valuation of $10.8 million, the highest total for that time period in four years.

The uptick has created a need for more workers. Moceri says it has been difficult finding qualified workers because fewer are left in the industry. When the economy crashed in 2008, the construction industry was among the sectors hardest hit. People fled the industry in droves, choosing to go into other careers.

"You wouldn't believe how many people who were my subs (subcontractors) that now want to be my financial advisor," Moceri joked. "Unfortunately, we've had five or six years where 18-year-olds were wondering what to do with their life, and they weren't saying 'construction.'"

Something that has changed for the better is the building permit process, according to Moceri. Depending on the project, he generally tells homeowners the turnaround time is four weeks, but it's often quicker.

For medium-size projects, February and March is typically the time to start talking to a contractor, if it's going to be completed by the end of summer, he said.

TRENDS: 'AGING IN PLACE,' ENERGY EFFICIENCY

With that new confidence, people are more willing to invest in their home because that's where they want to stay, says DyLon McClary, the owner of Rose Construction, in Bellingham.

"They like the neighborhood and want to stay for a long time," he says.

With more people wanting to stay put for the long-term, a popular remodel involves "aging in place," making the home easier to live in for senior citizens. Typical improvements for that include widening doorways, putting in grab bars and installing chairlifts.

"Boomers are now getting into their 60s and 70s and they don't want to move, so they make modifications," McClary says.

Kitchen and bathroom remodels remain popular, along with adding a room. Energy efficiency and reusing old materials, especially wood, are also commonly discussed topics.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT LOOK

Homeowners often know exactly what they want by the time they contact a contractor, Moceri says. He estimates 80 percent of his customers use the website Houzz.com, which has plenty of pictures of rooms. Early research can help projects be completed on time by reducing the number of changes in the middle of the process.

"The Internet has really helped us work with customers to get what they want," Moceri says, noting that contractors can usually get what homeowners see on websites, or offer good alternatives if the price is too high.

Television shows about remodeling are also popular and helpful, but it's important to realize that a lot takes place away from the camera, so realistic time schedules need to be set early on, McClary says.

"What is great about the television shows is they show a lot of creative DIY (do-it-yourself) work," he says, which allows the contractor to focus on more complicated aspects of the project.

Given the number of phone calls coming in at the end of December, Moceri and McClary anticipate a busy spring and summer.

"We're in a unique position," Moceri says. "(Whatcom County) was one of the last areas to feel the recession in construction, and we appear to be one of the first to be getting out of it."

REMODELING ADVICE

Plenty of advice is available online about hiring a contractor, including at the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (biawc.com) and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries (lni.wa.gov).

Here is some advice from local remodelers:

- Make sure the contractor is legit. Tony Moceri of Moceri Construction says they had to take over two projects last fall because it wasn't being done correctly.

- Have a contingency fund for unexpected expenses. "There's always something hidden in the wall that we didn't expect," Moceri says.

-- Consider moving out during construction. A noisy and messy work site can be an uncomfortable place to eat and sleep.

- Try not to have everything ironed out before the project starts. It's good to have a general idea, but circumstances usually require changes, so it's important to be flexible, Moceri says.

-- Create a list of what you like and don't like about your home. DyLon McClary of Rose Construction says communication tends to be better when goals are written down.

-- Yes, you can do it yourself. A lot of time and money can be saved when the homeowner is willing to do some of the less complicated parts of a project, McClary says. On some projects, he has had his carpenter hang around for a few minutes to go over a do-it-yourself project.

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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