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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
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    Small businesses feel the pinch from slowing housing market

    NEW YORK (AP) – The chill in the housing market is rippling out to the carpenters, landscapers and other small businesses that lose out when fewer homeowners are renovating their properties.

    Inflation was already causing some homeowners to delay big renovation projects as prices for building materials, fixtures and appliances jumped. More recently, higher mortgage rates have put a damper on the number of homes being sold.

    At the beginning of the year, carpenter Bill Albritton, who has owned Albritton Custom Carpentry near Charlotte, NC, since 2004, was booked months in advance and completing full custom kitchen cabinet replacements in homes in the historic districts of Charlotte. But he’s seen a slowdown over the past two months.

    In the Charlotte metropolitan area, the number of home sold fell 19 per cent between June and July, and are down about 21 per cent from July a year ago, according to the Re/Max monthly National Housing Report.

    Albritton is booked out 30 days in advance, compared to the usual 90 to 160 days.

    Meanwhile, his costs have gone up by more than 30 per cent across the board. Plywood he uses jumped from USD72 to USD140 a sheet around Christmas. It has gone back down to USD85 a sheet, but that’s still higher than it used to be. And he has trouble finding hinges at any price.

    Bill Albritton of Bill Albritton Cabinetry in his workshop in Charlotte, North Carolina. PHOTOS: AP
    Daniel Edwards stands with Kylie Vaughan, a customer service representative, at his Handyman Connection franchise office in Hanover, Massachusetts

    Albritton is trying to pivot to smaller carpentry jobs.

    “Instead of doing new kitchens we’re gearing up to do what we call ‘kitchen face lifts,’” Albritton said. That means just replacing the fronts of cabinets and drawers and teaming up with a painting contractor to paint the cabinets. It gives “a new kitchen look for a fraction of the price”, he said.

    The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates in an effort to reduce inflation, which is running at almost 10 per cent annually at the wholesale level. The fear is the Fed will go too far and the economy will go into a slump.

    “I am very worried on the heels of the material shortages we have been battling to now look at a very possible recession,” Albritton said. He’s reaching out to other home renovation companies to partner with as one way to keep the work coming.

    The average rate on a 30-year mortgage is 5.55 per cent, according to Freddie Mac. A year ago, the average was 2.87 per cent. The increase is forcing some would-be buyers out of the market and sales of previously owned homes have fallen for six straight months. That matters to the businesses involved in home renovations because sellers can spend thousands of dollars making a house more attractive to buyers, and then the buyers spend thousands more personalising their new home or fixing it up.

    Growth in homeowner spending for improvements and repairs is expected to slow for the rest of 2022 and the first half of 2023, according to the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The center’s Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity predicts homeowner improvement and repair spending repair spending will grow 17.4 per cent this year to USD431 billion. That will slow to 10.1 per cent by the second quarter of next year, with total 2023 spending estimated at USD446 billion.

    Chris Doyle, CEO and co-founder of Billd, a construction finance company, said small businesses should be aware of what’s going on in their market and consider pivoting to different types of projects. A small business previously focussed on new-home construction should try to work with renovators instead, for example. And since residential home spending is set to decline, federal construction projects might also be something to look into.

    “Everyone’s going to have to adapt,” he said. “Small businesses have an opportunity to adapt quicker since they’re more nimble than bigger companies.”

    Daniel Edwards, who owns a Handyman Connection franchise in Hanover, Massachusetts, focusses on small jobs that are several thousand dollars, like building decks, swapping out windows and doors and carpentry projects. In the greater Boston area that includes Hanover, home sales in July were down 20 per cent. The median price of a home sold was USD650,000, down two per cent from June but up eight per cent from this time last year, according to Re/Max data.

    Edwards said he’s normally booked out three or four weeks with jobs, but lately it’s been two to three weeks. He said customers are being tighter with money: They, want smaller jobs, want to look at receipts and question the price of materials. For example, one customer decided to install a toilet paper holder himself, rather than paying someone to do it, saving about USD25, he said. Another customer who requested a quote for a gutter cleaning decided to hold off. But while business has been slower, he said the dip isn’t as bad as he was worried it might be.

    “I certainly don’t see normal July and August levels, but I don’t see what I had feared in terms of significant decline. People still want small- to mid-sized projects,” he said.

    Inflation has been trying on Tom Monson’s business, Monson Lawn & Landscaping, in St Paul, Minnesota. He’s had to raise prices – he now charges USD62.50 to mow a lawn. up from USD50. A sod installation costs USD1,250, up from USD1,100.

    More price-sensitive customers have cut back. One customer who was planning on putting in a new lawn decided to wait until next year, and others have cut back from biweekly landscaping appointments to monthly.

    Curbio is a startup that provides pre-sale renovations on homes that it doesn’t charge for until the home is sold. They operate in 52 markets across the country, from Chicago to South Florida. They’ve also started offering smaller projects as the housing market slows.

    “As the market starts to cool in some areas, there’s much more sensitivity to timelines,” said vice president at Curbio Olivia Mariani. “Before, a homeowner may be willing to wait eight to 12 weeks to fully gut and remodel their kitchen. Now, they’re asking for the minimum viable work.”

    So instead of doing a full renovation, Curbio has begun shifting project types to more “refreshes” – like painting cabinets or refinishing hardwood floors. It dropped its prior USD15,000 minimum price for projects and now 30 per cent of its projects are under USD15,000.

    Mariani said Curbio’s data shows that a cabinet refresh can help raise the price of a home for sale just as much as a bigger job.

    “Buyers just want a home that doesn’t require maintenance – a full cabinet redo is not really necessary,” she said.

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