So you’ve finally decided that avocado-colored appliances are never coming back into style? You’re tired of elbowing your spouse for space in front of the sink while brushing your teeth? It’s time for a renovation.

The good news is that 2008 could be the best time in years to make that decision. The slow housing construction market has idled subcontractors who, in years past, were swamped with work. Labor and materials prices are getting more competitive.

“Now is an excellent time to take advantage of the fact that our industry has slowed,” says Steve Fletcher, owner of Fletcher Homes in Cincinnati. “Rates are down. A lot of contractors are more available than ever. Commodity prices are down. It’s a great time to remodel your house. You’ll get a lot more for your money.”

In fact, according to a report released by the Remodeling Futures Program of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, homeowner spending on remodeling projects is projected to increase 44 percent between 2005 and 2015. The professional remodeler portion of the home improvement market is expected to grow 46 percent between 2005 and 2015. Sure, things have softened a bit from 2005, when housing was booming. That year, spending on remodeling projects was estimated to hit $280 billion. But homeowners are the winners now.

Fletcher, whose company works mostly in Hyde Park, Terrace Park, Indian Hill, and Mariemont, has never been busier in his 25 years in the business. He speculates that people are afraid they’ll have trouble selling their house in the soft market, so they’re deciding to stay but make changes for the long term. Timothy Harth, partner in Drackett-Harth Construction of Cincinnati, agrees. “A lot of those people who were building houses are now standing around with their thumbs in their ears.”

It’s estimated that two-thirds of homes are now at least a quarter-century old, which means more are hitting the age when renovation and improvement spending typically increases. This is a large part of Fletcher’s market. People don’t want to leave their neighborhoods, so they’re adding rooms, porches, decks, and renovating basements.
Look Ahead, Plan Ahead

“It’s never too early to plan,” Harth says. In this region, construction happens year-round, although it sometimes slows in the harshest months of January and February. That means that the driving factor in when to start planning is when you want the project finished. Need a deck for a summer wedding party? Want an addition for a graduation in June? You need to get going. “March is not too early to start on a summer project,” Harth says. “There’s no advantage to waiting.”

Harth has a client who called in November to begin planning for an addition he wanted completed in May. Harth says he has a couple of suggestions he gives clients. “Any construction project is going to take longer than the homeowner thinks it will.” Permits, zoning regulation, approvals, subcontractors — a myriad of details — add time to the process. Many localities have rules regarding inspections and zoning, particularly for projects that include any alterations to the outside. Even changing a front door could require a 30-day lapse for an architectural review board to consider it, Harth explains. “Something small could take a while.” Harth’s second suggestion? “Have a budget, then plan to go over it by 10 percent. We’ll work to your budget, but you won’t.”

Any project that requires cabinetry generally takes longer, says Neal Hendy, president of Neal’s Design Remodel of Cincinnati. “For a kitchen remodel, it might take six to eight weeks to pick out cabinets and get them in. Design might take three weeks. You’re dealing with a project that, before you’ve even started, takes two to three months.” A good rule is to plan on 60 to 90 days from the first time you think of a project to when construction begins, Harth suggests. “It takes that long to get it off the ground.”

Another factor that sparks renovation these days is rising home energy costs. “A lot of people want new windows,” Fletcher says.
Homeowners are more aware than ever of environmental concerns and energy efficiency. They want to replace leaky windows, doors that have cracks from age, and drafty construction.

As spring approaches, this prompts even small projects. Don Kennedy, owner of Cincinnati’s Handyman Matters franchise, says it’s simple for homeowners to improve their energy efficiency even if they don’t want a commit to a major renovation. Spring is a great time to install an adjustable thermostat, add insulation, seal gaps that have developed over the winter in doors and windows, caulk, and add ceiling fans to increase air flow. These are small home improvement jobs, but ones that can easily be worthwhile. “People always want to know how to reduce their energy bill,” Kennedy says. “That’s a very common project in the spring.”

And although basements are inside, they’re a good project any time of the year. Fewer permits are often required for interior projects, and the weather isn't a factor. “It’s not terribly seasonal anymore,” Harth says. “It’s more market-driven than weather-driven.” Likewise, a bathroom remodel can take less time than a major addition or renovation. “If it doesn’t require much cabinetry, it can come together more quickly,” Hendy notes.
Choosing a contractor

An oft-repeated rule for renovations is to get three estimates. But many contractors say that’s not necessary. Most important: Make sure you’re comfortable with the team, and confirm they’re reputable. Diligently check references and the Better Business Bureau. Interview them. You’ll be spending a lot of time and money with these workers, Fletcher reminds, so it’s important that you like them.

If you compare different estimates and contractors, make sure you’re comparing the same level of quality and service, Fletcher advises. Don’t go on the internet and get one estimate from Joe-Does-It-On-The-Cheap and another from Hal-Does-High-Quality. Hiring the cheapest could lead to disappointment in the form of late projects and poor quality, Fletcher says. “Just make sure you’re comparing equal quality builders.”
Once you have chosen a builder, get them involved in the project early, rather than after you have an architect sketch a plan. Even when you’re planning the space, your builder can help you control costs and avoid cost overruns. Fletcher says, “We can get together and say, ‘What do we need to do to get where we need to go?’” 

Flower Power at Home Show

At the annual Cincinnati Home & Garden Show, the “Show Gardens Presented by Frontgate” displays two dozen gardens while the Better Living Design Center helps you find an architect, builder or contractor. Also expect to encounter fully landscaped pavilions that emphasize the connections between fine art and garden design as well as sculpture and architecture. You’ll learn everything you need to know about such topics as herbal plants, water fountains, tropical fish, cottage gardens, and more.

Visitors will find anything from lush English gardens to exotic mosses, backyard bonsai to soothing ponds, as the fragrant aroma of daisies and delphiniums drifts through the aisles of the convention complex. Also on hand are hundreds of floor exhibitors and artisans who market everything from the latest in kitchen remodeling ideas to fashionable bathroom furnishings. It’s all enough to give Martha Stewart a migraine.
The cutting-edge shelter and landscaping trends abound. Be sure to check out the stamped decorative concrete, where homeowners can turn traditionally blank sidewalks and driveways into a canvas where they infuse their own personal artistic mark. Or how about backyard miniature lighthouses (complete with working searchlights), New Age wave pools and even a Feng Shui booth, introducing you to the ancient Chinese discipline of arranging your home’s interior and exterior to “facilitate the flow of your personal energy.” Call this year’s Home & Garden Show a bit of I-Ching meets cha-ching.

Whether you want to purchase the latest in wicker lawn chairs, or are simply seeking expert advice on hosting a Victorian tea party in a trellis garden, you’re bound to find a source here somewhere.

In a series of programs, expert remodelers, retailers, horticulturists, landscapers, arborists, herbalists and artists will share their concepts and products for every room of your house, not to mention the lawn and garden.

The Home & Garden Show provides a breath of fresh spring air in the midst of frigid winter. Get your fill of English lavender, black-eyed Susan, daffodils and foxglove while exploring the many thousand square feet of live grasses, ferns and perennials.

When you’re done admiring nature’s beauty, turn your attention to the spaces beneath your roof. A furnishing section will offer up fine pieces of furniture and decorative flourishes, anything from dressers to rugs. And a building and remodeling department provides inspiration to those who are considering major renovations of their existing homes.
—Felix Winternitz