Time is right to start home improvements
Slump means more contractors and lower costs
Good news if you're planning home improvements: You have your pick of contractors, many of them are willing to deal on price,materials are readily available and the wait for permits is short.
The housing slump and shaky economy have led to a shortage of jobs for people in the construction industry, including general contractors, carpenters, painters, plumbers and electricians. They say they are so eager for work they are taking on smaller projects they might have rejected a year or two ago when there was a glut of jobs.
"We're wheeling and dealing because we all need the work," said Bill Adams, an owner of Plantation-based Superior Pools, Spas and Waterfalls Inc., which does work in Broward and Palm Beach counties. "Compared to last year, this is the worst year pool contractors have had that I can remember."
A new shingle roof on a 2,000-square-foot house costs $8,000 or less, about 50 percent less than the $12,000 you would have paid two years ago. A new cement-tile roof on that same house will cost about $10,000 today, much less than the $15,000 to $25,000 two years ago.
"Now really is the best time because you're going to get the best prices on labor and materials," said Joe Pace of Pace Roofing Inc. in West Palm Beach.
Carol Waddell, of Atlantis in central Palm Beach County, agreed and hired Pace to replace her 42-year-old roof, which could no longer be cleaned because of broken tiles.
"The beauty of this is I'm getting exactly the same tile I have now," she said. "I'm thrilled about how the timing worked out and the price and everything."
Despite the better prices and availability of contractors, even the most reputable businesses are having a hard time attracting new work.
"People are nervous and wondering if this is the time to make a major investment in their home and price themselves out of the market if they decide to sell in a year or two," said Kermit Baker, an economist at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "A lot of people are sitting on their hands."
After Wilma struck, homeowners seeking shutters paid about $6,300 and waited as long as eight months to get them installed. Today, they'll pay about $4,800 and wait about three weeks.
The price of screen enclosures has also dropped, going from as much as $25,000 two years ago to $9,000 today. The wait is about a month, compared with as much as six months after the hurricane. And the enclosures are built under new regulations adopted after the storms.
"Our prices are back to where they were and people are getting a much stronger enclosure that is more resistant to wind," said Glenn Cummings, owner of Sunshine Screen and Patio in Hollywood.
During the construction frenzy, city building departments took up to several months to issue permits because of demand. Those numbers have dropped dramatically. Pembroke Pines, for example, issued 41 percent fewer permits between July 2007 and February 2008 than from January to July 2007.
"Clearly we're all seeing a slowdown," said Michael Goolsby, past president of the South Florida Building Officials Association.
Rick and Lois Josepher decided "the timing was perfect" to add 1,400 square feet and update their 14-year-old Parkland home, so they hired Cannatelli Builders in Pompano Beach.
"We waited until the Hurricane Wilma repairs were done and prices had come back down, so we had a good experience," Lois Josepher said of their eight-month, $200,000 job.
Although the price of some construction materials, such as lumber, has gone down in response to sluggish home construction, costs have increased for concrete, steel and petroleum products such as fuel, PVC pipes and asphalt. But contractors say they can't pass along the expense because of fierce competition for work.
"We're seeing prices are down, lower than they've been in several years, but our costs are constantly going up," said Broward roofer Billy Cone, owner of RoofTech and president of the statewide roofers association. "Most of us are down at least 50 percent of gross sales."
Consumer complaints about licensed and unlicensed contractors are down slightly in South Florida, regulators say. They attribute that to fewer jobs.
Joel Metter, supervisor of consumer protection for Broward County, and Kurt Eismann, director of Palm Beach County's Contractor's Certification Division, said consumers should not let down their guard if they plan to add on or renovate.
Their advice: Be sure to obtain three written estimates from licensed contractors specifying the quality and type of materials to be used and how long it would take to complete the work. Remember that an occupational license is a business license, not a contractor's license. Ask for proof of insurance and never give a large sum of money upfront.