By Marni Jameson
“We are only taking work for new home construction or complete renovations,” the woman from the contractor’s office tells me when I ask for a bid on a patio renovation project.
“That’s it?” I ask. What my job isn’t good enough? I think.
“I might be able to send my stucco guy out,” she says.
“I don’t want a stucco guy. I want a contractor.”
I call another contractor: “The mailbox is full and can’t take new messages.” Sigh.
I call Home Advisors, a national contractor referral service, and get disconnected three times.
After the outside of our house got professionally power cleaned last week (Please join me in singing the Halleluiah Chorus.), DC and I were in our backyard admiring our refreshed home, when we agreed that the covered patio’s overhang and balcony above could use an update. A minor renovation would greatly improve our home’s appearance from the back, we thought, so I asked the house washer if he knew a good contractor. He said he’d check around.
A couple days later he sent a text. “I’ve asked three guys. No one is available.” And so my futile phone calling began. I also asked the well-connected women in my book club. “Good luck finding anyone,” was the universal answer.
You would think I were asking for workers to crawl through rat-infested sewers blindfolded.
I call the National Association of Home Builders to see if I’m the only one who can’t find a contractor.
I’m not alone. “We’re in the midst of a national labor shortage for home remodelers, and I don’t see it easing up anytime soon,” said Paul Emrath, an economist and vice president for survey and housing policy research for the association.
A 2017 NAHB remodeling survey found that 91 percent of remodelers reported shortages in available carpenters; 70 percent reported shortages of bricklayers, masons, drywallers and concrete workers; and half reported shortages in almost every other building trade. This is good news for builders, and bad news for those of us who want one.
“What happened to the days when homeowners got competitive bids for projects, and had their pick of contractors?” I wanted to know.
“The shortage has its roots in the 2007-2008 market downturn,” Emrath explained. “That scared workers away, and they haven’t been coming back, certainly not in proportion to the increase in residential construction and remodeling.”
That’s the other half of it. In the first eight months of 2018, Americans spent 60 percent more on residential construction and improvement than they did in the first eight months of 2008, according to NAHB data, and 160 percent more than they did during the same period in 2000.
“A strong economy, rising house-price appreciation, and low unemployment are all driving Americans to put money into their homes again,” Emrath said.
“I never thought I’d long for the days when we had a weak economy, high unemployment and falling home prices,” I said. “At least then you could find help!”
“The smaller the job, the worse it is,” he said, confirming my fears.
I’m on the street. “Excuse me, sir, do you know how to use a hammer?”
“Excuse me, Ma’am, Are you familiar with power tools?”
I head to a busy street corner and wave a sign: “Have work. Need workers.”
What else is a home remodeler to do? Emrath has the following suggestions:
- Be one with the shortage. Accept that you’re at the mercy of a builders’ market, and be prepared to pay more and for the work to take longer. “The shortage will cause wages to go up, which should ultimately help attract more workers into the industry,” he said.
- Know your place. Subcontractors, including carpenters, plumbers and electricians, are naturally more attracted to work for general contractors or companies they know they can rely on for repeat business than to a homeowner’s job. That means homeowners with smaller, one-time projects take a back seat.
- Be more attractive. Consumers can make themselves more attractive to a builder by convincing them that they have all the financing lined up, and by being easy to work with, said Emrath.
- Be patient. If your job is small, which Emrath defines as between $3,000 and $20,000, it will take longer to find a contractor and longer to get the work completed.
- Consult a national association. Both NAHB and the National Association for the Remodeling Industry have pro-finder tools on their websites, and can connect you with professionals in your area. You will still have to check them out. “But, generally speaking, the fly-by-night builders who don’t want to pull permits don’t join trade associations like ours,” said Emrath.
- Do a deep background check. Because a high demand for workers in a tight labor market attracts flakes, consumers need to be more vigilant in their vetting, said Elizabeth McKenna, NARI spokeswoman. Make sure the worker you’re considering is a licensed contractor, then do some online research. Check with the Better Business Bureau for complaints filed against the worker or company. Check the county court’s website for any suits filed against the contractor. Ask for proof of insurance. Call references.
- Don’t settle. Though I’m tempted to hire anyone who knows one end of a hammer from the other, I will hold out for a licensed contractor with proven references. If you hire an unlicensed worker, you have few remedies if the job goes awry or the worker goes AWOL, experts say.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of four home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.