On the House: Sales are slow, so is home-improvement business

Posted: December 04, 2011

I hadn't done much work on our house recently - at least not anything that would take me regularly to the home centers.

This real estate market doesn't inspire major home-improvement projects. Most questions I receive from readers these days focus on how to extend the life of whatever - toilets, sinks, countertops, cabinets, furnaces - so they can defer buying expensive replacements.

In my Nov. 14 "Ask Al" online chat, one reader inquired whether it would be wiser to buy a bigger house nearby than to add on to his current house. He didn't sound as if he really was enamored of his current place anyway, and I suggested he look into buying something bigger.

Why? Although he is likely to get the same or less than he paid for his current house, the price of a new place also is lower. And he might never recoup the cost of an addition at resale.

With about 40 days off between mid-October and early December, I decided to take care of a few things around the house: a new vanity for the first-floor bathroom, and doing something about the corner of the basement I've been describing as my office but that I share with crickets and the spiders that eat them.

This meant many trips to Home Depot and Lowe's, neither of which I had visited regularly in recent years. I expected to have both places to myself, given the condition of the real estate market and the surprising sluggishness of the home-improvement market.

I was wrong about Home Depot. After a couple of experiences dealing with crowds of consumers and contractors, I limited my visiting time to before 7 a.m. and after 1 p.m.

Maneuvering in Lowe's was easier, but I think that had more to do with location. My nearest Home Depot is in the same shopping center as a Wegmans (where I also shop in the off-hours, and for the same reason as at Home Depot), while the Lowe's I use is a bit too distant from the nearest mall for it to be of much use.

That may be Lowe's problem. A lot of them popped up nearby after Home Depot arrived, which is understandable in a boom market but problematic in a bust. Lowe's' fiscal third-quarter profits fell 44 percent, the company reported last month, owing to the cost of closing 20 underperforming stores.

Home Depot's third-quarter profits rose 12 percent - with its performance stronger than Lowe's for the last nine quarters. Home Depot is a much larger company, and a good chunk of that increase resulted from repair/replacement sales after Hurricane Irene.

Still, the relative isolation of my nearest Lowe's, though not good for its bottom line, makes it easier for me to get in, load the maximum twelve 2-by-4s into our Prius, and ease down Route 38 to home.

I have an equal number of likes and dislikes about Lowe's and Home Depot, but the fact is that, as with hardware outlets, paint stores, and lumberyards, there are fewer choices.

The latest casualty is what we still called Haddonfield Lumber (on Brace Road in Cherry Hill), even though ProBuild bought it in 2006.

It had been a while, but last time I needed drywall, they delivered it free. I stopped to order some on the way home from the gym in Cherry Hill, but the door to the showroom was locked.

I took out my iPhone and Googled, and found my answer: Closing "in light of continued industry and market difficulties."

So I headed to Home Depot and paid $65 to have drywall placed on our driveway. My 22-year-old son and I carried it to the garage.

Delivery was pricey, but at least the help was free.

"On the House" appears Sundays. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheavens on Twitter.

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