That about sums up how home and design service providers are feeling these days, as many of their customers seem to be opening up their wallets and tackling projects they’ve put off because of economic downturns. “It’s still tentative,” said Mitch Schultz, the fourth generation to run D. Schultz Interiors, the Willow Grove business founded by his great-grandfather in 1895. Like many retailers, Schultz sees the upper end of the market recovering quicker than the lower end. “People with more disposable income are spending,” he said.
According to a new study conducted by the Remodeling Futures program at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, spending on home improvements will continue to accelerate this year. The projections reflect rising home sales and construction, and low financing costs, according to the study. While spending on improvements and maintenance has been down since 2007, when it peaked at $328 billion, in 2012 it rose about 12 percent over 2011 levels, according to the center’s data. The decline in home values and the aging baby boomer market will likely have a positive impact on home renovation and design, as more boomers make changes to existing homes, or downsize and modify their new digs.
The New Faces of Renovation
Renovations come in all flavors, depending on your budget and priorities. For the full court press, a new kitchen, which can run $75,000, and a redone master bath, which can add up to $40,000, are still hugely popular, noted Mark Fox, a partner in the Main Line-based Gardner Fox Associates, a full-service design/build construction firm founded in 1987. “We’re actually pretty busy right now, with a lot of jobs just getting started,” he said. “People definitely are more cost-conscious than in the past — but that’s just the new normal.”
Fox said that his company has become leaner than it used to be, partly by relying on subcontractors to handle some installation, while the firm’s designers and architects personally oversee more projects. “We’re seeing people concentrating more on adding outdoor living spaces, which might include pools, pavilions, patios, fire pits and gardens,” said Fox.
John DeSilvia said that the trend he’s noticed is adapting older homes with open floor plans. DeSilvia is a licensed contractor and host of Rescue My Renovation on the DIY Network. “The biggest thing is open space,” said the Brooklyn native. “A lot of people live in older homes designed back in the day when each room was a separate space. Now they don’t want a separation between the kitchen and the rest of the living space. People are opening up walls to get that flow going.”
Even if you don’t have a five- or six-figure budget, you can still make a huge impact on your space with some relatively painless changes.
On the lower end, Fox said that refinishing hardwood floors and painting could make a tremendous difference. And if you can’t change up the entire kitchen, consider switching the Formica countertops for granite, refinishing the wood cabinets and adding new hardware. “Then there’s the front façade package,” he said. “Consider a new porch, or columns, sidewalk lighting, landscaping — all of that will make the house look better from the street, something you’ll enjoy every time you come home.”
Before you count yourself out of doing a more significant renovation, DeSilvia suggested having a frank dialogue with your contractor. “Sometimes, you find a contractor who will work with you.” He recommended asking for an itemized proposal, and not just a lump sum estimate for all the work. “Everything should be broken down. If you’re handy and on a tight budget, you can do the demo yourself, for example, and save some money.” Ready-to-assemble cabinets is another place to save big bucks. “I just renovated an apartment I own, and I used IKEA cabinets, ” he said. “The boxes are pressed wood, but the doors are wood and absolutely gorgeous. I think I bought everything for $3,500. Those boxes are going to last for 20 years. Custom cabinets eliminate filler panels, but is it worth 10 grand for that? I don’t think so.”
Smart Owners Finish First
Changing finishes is a great way to update without spending a mint. “Changing fabric isn’t like tearing out a wall,” said Lisa Shull, owner of Fabric Loft in Peddler’s Village. “Pillows can change the whole look of a room. You can re-cover your dining room chairs for less than $1,000 and go from casual to elegant, or the reverse.”
Changing wall coverings and window treatments is one way to give a room a new look without undertaking a full-scale renovation. Although the challenge of competing with virtual online showrooms is ongoing for all brick and mortar retailers, a business like D. Schultz offers something you can’t get on the Internet: a knowledgeable and experienced sales staff that provides turnkey service. “With fabrics, you need to see and touch for yourself to really know color, depth and texture,” Schultz said. The company offers custom wall coverings and window treatments of every sort. “Wall covering is a relatively inexpensive way of changing the look of a room,” he said. “People don’t realize that you can get the look of a faux-painted room with wall covering, at much less than it would cost to hire a faux painter.”
Shull sees movement in the market, but she also sees customers doing things in steps instead of all at once. “That makes it affordable and you still get the satisfaction of seeing change.” Fabrics and finishes with bright colors and geometric designs are hot right now, again offering a big update for a small investment, she said.
For many of his customers, less is more, said Carl Goldberg, whose Philadelphia business, Goldberg’s Blinds & Shades, dates back to 1960. “Most people want a more casual, less fussy look than in the old days, when everything had to match,” he said. “When we first had the store, customers would order a Silhouette shade and want a topper or cornice. Now, the shade is so gorgeous, it doesn’t need anything else.”
Mark Saul sees changes in what customers want when it comes to flooring as well. Saul owns Axminster Rug Co., a fixture in the Northeast since 1928. “Homes around here were all built with wood floors, but everybody covered them up with carpeting. Now they’re discovering their old wood floors again, and most of them are in pretty good shape. So it’s more about area rugs than wall-to-wall.” Axminster carries all kinds of flooring, from eco-friendly vinyl to laminates, area rugs and carpeting. “If you’re on a budget, so you buy a good imitation Persian rug, and after a few years you throw it out. I don’t see too many people buying heirloom rugs anymore,” he said.
Lighting is another big impact feature that can transform a ho-hum space. Harris Pasternak, whose family has stood behind Wage Lighting & Design in South Philadelphia since 1950, said that many of his customers are looking for LED task lighting that is both decorative and functional. Although people don’t always give good lighting its due — “we’re the jewelry end of the design world,” Pasternak said — its importance, especially for aging boomer eyes, can’t be underestimated.
Weinstein Supply’s 7,000 sq. ft. kitchen and bath showroom in Willow Grove is bustling these days, as folks get busy with projects they’ve been putting off for the past few years, said general manager Mark Goodman. Although he caters to a mostly traditional market, there are some trendy high-end fixtures and features that are popular. In the kitchen, under-mount sinks are the norm, along with stone countertops. “One trend we’re seeing is touchless faucets with beam sensors transitioning from commercial to home use,” he said. “Which actually makes a lot of sense in a kitchen, where your hands are usually handling food.”
In the bathroom, wall-hung vanities, freestanding soak tubs and vanities that look more like furniture than bath fixtures are all must-haves. Making existing bathrooms accessible without looking institutional is another popular redo. Barrier-free showers, grab bars and hand showers all figure into the mix. If you’re just looking for a cosmetic update, changing out the toilet and vanity and adding bright towels and rugs can do wonders.
No matter how large — or small — your project, your main priority is to work with a licensed and vetted contractor, said DeSilvia, who rescues renovations gone wrong on his TV show. “You have no idea the stuff we see that doesn’t get on the show,” he said. “If you were sick, you’d research and get the best doctor. For some reason, people just trust a contractor they don’t know, and it can get ugly.” He urged homeowners to ask to speak to a contractor’s other customers, see projects the company has done, read the contract — and add a “Time Is of the Essence” clause that will keep the job on schedule, and penalize the contractor if it goes past the due date. “And if you smell a rat, get rid of him,” said DeSilvia. “Do your research, and you’ll never get screwed."
Beth D'Addono is a longtime contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.