Abilene contractors see more home remodeling work during pandemic


Quarantined Abilenians have realized that home could be sweeter with some updates.

Jason Ramirez, owner of The Honey do Service of Abilene Inc., has hired more staff in recent months to meet the demand.

“We’ve added more craftsmen. We’ve added another salesman,” Ramirez said. “We now have booked a month and a half out worth of work for my craftsmen.”

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Gus Flores measures a length of tin before cutting it for a skirt for the portable building behind him owned by Melina Sterry (left) on Nov. 13. Flores works for The Honey Do Service of Abilene, a general contractor. (Photo: Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News)

The current situation is much rosier than expected after the pandemic hit the Abilene area in mid-March with stay-at-home orders and school closures.

“At the beginning, it was scary,” said Ramirez, who has owned the franchise for five years.

“I was lucky…,” he added. “I had a month’s worth of work scheduled already when the leads dropped off. So, when the leads dropped off, my guys were still employed.”

Just as the scheduled work was about to be fulfilled, people started calling for bids to remodel a bathroom, kitchen or entire house, or update the back yard with a new fence or masonry work. 

Another popular request: rewiring and other handyman help to convert a room into a home office, Ramirez said. 

“We’ve done a few more media cabinets where we’re running cable and Internet lines and phone lines and data lines and all that,” he said. 

That greater demand for home repairs and remodeling is reflective of a national trend.

The home remodeling website houzz.com reported a 58% increase in project leads for home professionals during the month of June, compared to the same period in 2019.

At first, a pause

When the worldwide pandemic first affected Abilene, consumers hit the pause button on bids for remodeling projects, said Tip Matthews.

Matthews, with husband, Leck, co-owns Battles Home Improvements and Re-Bath Abilene.

The couple’s companies focus on siding, windows, doors and bathroom remodels. Battles has been at its same location on South 14th Street since 1972. 

“Of course, in the beginning no one knew what was going to happen, and so the appointments we had on the books, people were like, ‘I don’t think I want you to come out just now,” Matthews said.

That hesitation lasted for about a week and a half, she said. 

As people stayed home more, they noticed areas in the house that needed updating, Matthews said. 

“Like, it’s drafty in the house, we need new windows, or that bathtub – I want a walk-in shower. Or, my parents can’t get in and out of the bathroom. Get over here and do something about this,” Matthews said. 

Other more frequent requests involve screening in a porch or converting a patio into a sunroom for additional living space or an office, she said.

Live, work and play at home

Some customers who had long-range plans to add a swimming pool or make their back yards an inviting entertainment space decided to pursue the project now.

That’s because vacations abroad were canceled, said Wynndi Caldwell, Extreme Exteriors retail sales representative and greenhouse manager. 

“We’ve had some clients say,  ‘if we’re going to do a quarantine, let’s make it a staycation. Let’s go ahead with our pool,'” Caldwell said. 

Extreme Exteriors, an Abilene-based company that specializes in landscaping, pools and outdoor living construction and accessories, also has locations in Midland and Fort Worth.

Long before the pandemic, the company guided customers by asking them “why” they wanted to enhance an outdoor space. Often, the answer is tied to a desire to have a space to enjoy with family and make memories, Caldwell said.

During the pandemic, that answer is even more common, she said.  

Spending extra time at home also affords customers to be present when workers are in the house, Ramirez said.

“People are home so it’s advantageous for them while they have the time to get the estimates and have the work,” Ramirez said. “Some people don’t like you in their house without them there, so it’s a perfect opportunity for that as well.”

Adapting to changes

The contractors said they follow COVID-19 precautions, such as workers wearing masks while inside houses. 

They also adapted to changes in the marketplace. For example, Extreme Exterior offered free home and curbside delivery of its retail products and added vegetables plants in the spring for clients interested in container gardening. 

“A lot of people were home with their children, and so they did some family projects, I think,” Caldwell said. 

Expect delays

Before the pandemic, Battles had about a six-week backlog of work. Now, the wait is closer to eight weeks.

In addition to increased demand, the longer timeframe is due to a disruption  in supplies, Matthews said. 

Some vendors decreased production, expecting consumers to cut back. Ramping up to meet increased demand then sometimes stalled because of COVID-19 cases among workers. Busy ports handling international supplies and scheduling challenges in the trucking industry also are issues impacting local companies, Matthews said.

“My customers have been really patient because one of the biggest things we’re seeing is my vendors getting the supplies here. What used to take six weeks is now taking 10 to 12 weeks,” Matthews said.

Availability of outdoor accessories has been hit or miss, with some businesses and products deemed essential and others not. For example, construction work and the manufacture of grills could continue, but patio furniture production was halted temporarily, Caldwell said.

Helping the failed DIYers

Market research company NPD said in a Sept. 28 report that home hardware stores saw an 11% increase in purchases compared to last year.

In addition, about one in 10 consumers have taken on home projects instead of hiring a professional. These projects include cleaning, landscaping, maintenance, repairs and even remodeling, NPD reported. 

Sometimes, do-it-yourselfers tackled more than they could handle, Matthews said. She has fielded more calls than usual from people who started a bathroom remodel and needed helped finishing it.

“I’ve had a lady crying saying, ‘My husband started this and now we’ve made a mess of it and we don’t know what to do. Can you help me?,” Matthews said.

Helping such people quickly is not always feasible because of the backlog of work, she said. 

A word of caution

When deciding to remodel a space, the most important decision is not paint colors and fixture styles but choosing to be patient.

“Be patient, because your good contractors won’t be able to get there immediately. We’re all backed up,” Matthews said. 

The reputable contractors are busier than usual, but they are worth the wait, she said. Consumers need to count the cost beyond the price of a low bid. 

More often than usual, Matthews is hearing from people who hired “a man in a truck,” as she describes them, who take a customer’s deposit but don’t return to do the work.

“I get these calls more often than not,” Matthews said, where the person says “‘I gave someone some money and they didn’t come back and I can’t get ahold of them. Can you help me?’ That’s the saddest story there is.”

In the end, updating a house makes good sense, evening when the stock market is shaky, because a house is a quality investment, Matthews said.

“The price of your home goes up in value,” she said. “Your money is about as safe in your home as it is. I think that’s why real estate has done so well, too.”

Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News.  If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com. 

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Wednesday November 2, 2022