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Renovating? Pandemic leaves lumber, labor, and patience in short supply

Home Improvement
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Stuck at home with nowhere to go, homeowners dove into do-it-yourself projects with new enthusiasm. Adobe Stock

When Jenna Amyot and her husband closed on their Medford house at the end of March, it needed a lot of work. They had plans to remodel and expand the kitchen, renovate the upstairs bath, replace the deck, and update the electrical and plumbing systems, among other projects — all before moving in.

And with a baby on the way, they hoped to have everything finished by the time Amyot’s maternity leave was up.

As it turned out, they could barely get the work started.

When the pandemic brought life to a near-standstill this spring, simply getting a building permit took more than a month. “We’d hoped to begin work in April, but it didn’t start until almost the last week in May,” Amyot said.

That was just the beginning of the delays and supply shortages that have upended their home-improvement plans over the past six months. With so many homeowners eager to remodel after being locked down in their homes, and manufacturing supply chains disrupted due to COVID-related complications and closures, contractors across the country have been scrambling to secure scarce building materials and watching prices skyrocket due to shortages.

“It’s been insane for the past six months,” said Craig Guido, co-owner and head of sales and design at Almar Building & Remodeling Co. in Hanover. Lumber prices spiked quickly over the summer, Guido said, and it became nearly imlocksetossible to find some board lengths at local lumber yards — at any price.

Shortages of building supplies have been frustrating for contractors and homeowners alike, said Alison Loiselle, co-owner of North Shore Construction Management and FiveTen Properties in Woburn. “We have to send our crew to three or four different locations just to gather the materials list,” Loiselle said.

Lumber prices dropped at the outset of the pandemic, as the construction industry braced itself for a potentially prolonged slowdown. But demand was quick to recover, and the average price of dimensional lumber — the common boards, like 2-by-4s, used to frame houses and other structures — rose a staggering 174 percent during a 23-week run-up from April 10 to Sept. 18, according to the Random Lengths Framing Lumber Composite Price. The index “is a broad measure of lumber price movement in North America,” said Shawn Church, managing editor at Fastmarkets Random Lengths, which reports on the lumber industry.

“We had some fundamental long-term supply issues already,” Church said, including logging restrictions in the Pacific Northwest, tariffs on Canadian lumber, and an ongoing infestation of mountain pine beetles in Western Canada. “But then, with the shutdown from COVID, it really reduced the supply available to the market.”

Meanwhile, stuck at home with nowhere to go, homeowners dove into do-it-yourself projects with new enthusiasm. “It really ignited one of the most dramatic increases in demand from that sector that we’ve really ever seen,” Church said.

With less lumber in circulation due to the mill closures of March and April, and housebound homeowners desperate for decks, it wasn’t long before price hikes hit pressure-treated wood, too. With pressure-treated lumber hard to find and composite decking both scarce and pricey, Amyot and her husband ended up scrapping their plans for a new deck.

Structural panels, like plywood and oriented-strand board (OSB), were next to spike in price. And while prices of framing lumber started falling in September, according to the Random Lengths index — from a peak of $955 per 1,000 board feet to $840 on Oct. 11 — they remain more than double their April low of $348. All of which is making construction projects more costly.

“That run-up in lumber pricing adds about $16,000 to the price of a typical home,” said Rob Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.

While lumber has seen the sharpest shortages and price hikes, it hasn’t been the only building material in short supply.

“Lumber gets a lot of the attention,” Dietz said, “but I’m also hearing about shortages and delays associated with plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures in some cases, windows and doors, cabinets.” Loiselle said wait times have pretty much tripled for glass products like windows and shower doors. “I just got a quote for windows, and it’s a seven-week turnaround time, as opposed to two weeks normally,” she said.

“Appliances, hardware, a lot of things coming out of China have been affected, largely due to a backlog of shipping containers caught up in customs,” said Chris O’Halloran, founder of Joyne, a pre-construction platform for contractors. The same goes for European imports. Lead times for Italian-made tile have at times doubled from six weeks to three months or longer, Guido said, bogging down bathroom projects. “Across the board, pretty much every type of project has been affected one way or the other.”

Amyot had heard that COVID-related manufacturing disruptions overseas could delay the delivery of appliances, so she ordered hers well in advance — she thought. But as of early October, she was still waiting on the dishwasher and washing machine. “The dishwasher is part of a collection, and all the other pieces are in, so we’re going to wait it out so everything matches,” she said. “Same for the washing machine — it’s a stackable set.”

Even locksets and doorknobs have proved hard to find at times, Guido said. “Especially if you want them keyed alike, that’s been kind of challenging recently to find certain brands,” he said.

Kitchen cabinets are backlogged, too. “Usually kitchen cabinets are four to six weeks out. Right now they’ve been floating somewhere around 12 weeks,” Guido said. He’s told several clients waiting on a kitchen remodel that he won’t schedule any demolition or other work until he has the cabinets in hand, “because I just can’t guarantee those dates.”

Likewise, Guido has been advising all clients with an upcoming project to select and purchase all of the materials and fixtures ahead of time. “You need to pick out and order things as early as possible, even if they have to sit in a warehouse or they have to sit in your garage or sit in your basement,” he said.

Waiting until all the materials are in is the best way to keep a remodeling project on schedule when construction staples can seemingly vanish from store shelves, Guido added. “The crazy thing for the industry, I think, has been that you never know. Like one day you can get toilets, and then the next day it takes three weeks to get that same toilet . . . there’s been no real rhyme or reason to it.”

Loiselle said she tries to be transparent and upfront with clients, setting realistic expectations about potential delays. “But, I mean, the focus of construction is to get in, do a project, complete it with quality, and get out,” she said. “And that’s been more difficult.”

Guido also suggested ignoring any pricing guidance you find online, at least for the time being. “Because it’s all changed in the past six months, and it could change again,” he said. “Prices are at an all-time high, and sometimes, even as a salesperson and a co-owner of the business, I’m shocked at how much things are costing.”

Adding to the supply disruptions is a long-term shortage of licensed tradespeople and skilled laborers. “It’s kind of unusual to be talking about labor as a key challenge when you’ve got an 8 percent national unemployment rate,” Dietz said. “[But] labor has been a long-term challenge.”

Amyot said most of the subcontractors she has contacted are stretched so thin they’re unable to take on new work or complete it anytime soon. After searching for someone to do attic insulation work, for example, she has found only one person able to do the job right away. “Which means if we want to move into our house, we have to go with him and his estimate, because it’s literally our only option,” she said. Meanwhile, her HVAC team started work in June but hasn’t finished. “They’re so overextended, they just never seem to have enough time for us,” she said.

Both Loiselle and Guido said they have more work than they can handle. “We’re already booked into summer of 2021,” said Guido, noting that clients are taking advantage of record-low interest rates to refinance or pull out home equity. “We’ve never had this many people thinking this far ahead with projects.”

But the rapid price jumps and unpredictable shortages have taken a toll on contractors, too, eroding profit margins and complicating projects. Some are changing the way they write quotes as a result. To protect against price hikes, “We’re implementing expirations on our estimates,” Loiselle said. Pre-pandemic, their price quotes were typically valid for six months. “Now it’s two weeks to 30 days.”

Guido said Almar’s quotes are now valid for 15 days, down from 30. And with larger projects and additions, he said, “we’ve started to look more and more at a cost-plus model, where it’s more of an open book with us and our clients.” This type of arrangement — more common on the West Coast, Guido said — tracks the costs of materials, labor, and a built-in profit margin, creating a flexible transparency that can protect both contractor and homeowner.

Meanwhile, the delays have put a different kind of price pressure on Amyot and her husband. “In July, our carpenter said we were six weeks out,” Amyot said. But in October, they were still living in their small apartment, feeling more cramped by the day with their now 4-month-old son and all of his baby gear. “We were not planning to carry a mortgage and rent for this long, so we’re longing for the day where we don’t have to pay both of those every month,” she said.

As much as they’re looking forward to finally moving into their new home, Amyot expects it will feel like more of a relief than a triumph. “We will not have a dramatic unveiling moment like you see on TV,” Amyot said. There won’t be a new deck anytime soon. They’ll make do with shower curtains until they can get glass doors.

“It’ll probably be months before we get furniture for some rooms, because we’re so over budget on the house renovations,” she said. “And we’re going to have to be OK with that.”

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.