On the House: Home improvement as perennial

Posted: May 13, 2012

I’m asked more home-improvement questions than questions about real estate, by a ratio of 4-1.

When, in a “Your Place” column in a recent Friday Home & Design section, I requested help for a reader needing to replace a rusted dishwasher rack for less than the manufacturer’s $200, I got 25 e-mails within two hours of the newspaper’s hitting the front steps, and more are coming even as I write this.

My every-other-Monday webchat on Philly.com welcomes all questions from noon to 1 p.m., but the 99 percent in this realm have to do with renovating, not selling or buying.

You might blame this on the prolonged housing downturn, which has fewer people than usual moving, but really it’s always been this way. In fact, during the depths of the crisis in 2008 and 2009, when everything I wrote sounded more like the real estate version of the Miserere mei, Deus, regular readers were begging me to stop.

The e-mailed plea I recall best was the one in which a longtime reader asked me to “hit my thumb with a hammer and talk about it, like I used to.”

There has to be a balance, of course. Although one might think remodelers are having a good time of it these days as more people find it necessary to stay put in the home they have, that does not appear to be the case. The National Association of Home Builders on April 26 reported a flatness in its Remodeling Market Index, a predictor of future activity.

Noting the spotty nature of the recovery, the group’s chief economist, David Crowe, said, “Many consumers are likely to be deferring large remodeling projects until they feel more comfortable with the economic climate in their area.”

Does that apply to us? The young couple across the street are having energy-efficient windows installed on their house. The family down the street is getting a new bathroom.

I frequent the Cherry Hill Home Depot on weekdays and Sundays and the Lawnside store on Saturdays, and contractors are as much in evidence there as do-it-yourselfers.

McGraw-Hill’s latest snapshot of the Philadelphia region shows that the value of residential-construction contracts in March rose 23 percent from the same month in 2011. For the first three months of 2012, the total was $286.5 million, up 30 percent from first quarter 2011.

It’s hard to generalize in any way. On the same day I report foreclosure filings rising 33 percent in this region, I also write about a 21 percent boost in sales contracts for previously owned homes here in the same period.

Two sets of data from two different sources, and both, it appears, are correct.

What can be said about the market for previously owned homes is that its health is governed, as always, by location.

Buyers are more confident. “They still are very cautious, however,” said Craig Lerch, who sells real estate in Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

“What I am finding is that I have to educate the buyers more that the new houses that are coming to the market that are priced right will sell fast and for close to the asking price,” Lerch said. “Some buyers are losing houses because they are hesitating or figure the price will be coming down.

“Sellers entering the market are being very aggressive … few believe that the new spike in activity will drive prices up.”

Much of what happens to real estate depends on the economy, and 2012’s first quarter disappointed many.

Economist Joel L. Naroff, who is based in Holland, Bucks County, said the first-quarter GDP report “came in less than expected, but it was hardly a disaster. The major takeaway is that fiscal austerity comes at a price: slower growth.”

Lots of signs, none pointing in any particular direction.


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com or @alheavens at Twitter.

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