Suzanne Tans wanted to redo her master bath, but didn't want to splurge in tough economic times.
So the South Charlotte teacher painted walls, bought new hardware and lighting and framed some decorative maps –spending just $2,500.
Like Tans, many homeowners in the Charlotte region are fixing up their houses, but worry about spending in an uncertain economy. So they're scaling back renovations, focusing on intensely practical projects and doing more of the work themselves, according to home improvement stores and contractors.
With the real estate market lagging, many owners are “re-committing” to their houses. Instead of building outdoor kitchens, they're replacing kitchen hardware. Rather than calling a plumber, they're learning how to install toilets. Instead of buying new furniture, they're investing in energy-efficient appliances.
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Across the country, spending on home improvements and repairs, which has risen nearly every year in the last three decades, is expected to fall 3.1 percent to $297 billion in 2008, according to the industry.
Trent Haston, a vice president for Andrew Roby Inc., one of Charlotte's oldest and largest remodelers, says business has fallen noticeably since the first half of the year. Current jobs are “more about taking care of the health of the house than adding the frou-frou stuff.”
For instance, he says, since 2003, the firm has added lavish outdoor areas to dozens of homes for well-heeled Charlotte clients.
“The pool houses, big fancy porches and outdoor kitchens – we're not doing any of those right now,” he says. Nearly half his clients are bank executives, Haston explains, and worry their jobs will disappear over the next year.
Instead of bathroom and kitchen additions, he says, customers are remodeling existing spaces to make them more useful.
Evan Doster, who operates Remodel Charlotte, a small business, says he's pricing a lot of jobs, only to have people put them off. Two recent customers had to stop projects mid-stream, he says, because of problems getting financing.
Right now, he says, he's doing smaller jobs than he'd like – a minor kitchen remodel and building a screened-in porch – hoping that work picks up in early 2009.
Matthew Gilreath, who manages the Home Depot on Wendover Road, says he's noticing increased demand for in-store clinics that show people how to replace toilets, tile a floor, or do faux finishing.
“There seems to be a large shift from do-it-for-me to teach-me-how,” Gilreath says. “There's an increased appetite for knowledge, and a huge focus on saving money.”
Buying energy-saving appliances is also a big trend, he says.
Chris Ahearn, a spokeswoman for Lowe's stores, says top customer projects are gardening/landscaping, followed closely by interior painting and small fix-ups like replacing lighting and plumbing fixtures. Customers are delaying big-ticket items like kitchen remodels, she says.
Todd Day, who started a Fresh Coat painting franchise in Charlotte six months ago, says it's been fairly busy because interior painting is an affordable fix-up. But he says people generally make money-saving choices – painting a living room and dining room, for instance, but not the bedrooms.
“We're beginning to see people re-committing to their houses, perhaps after having them on the market and not getting the price they wanted,” he says.
Tans, the Charlotte teacher who redid her master bath, says she wanted to make her house nicer without breaking her budget.
“I had friends who were talking about ripping out and replacing things,” she said. “I wanted to enhance the space, but to do it economically.”