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True Grit: Remodeling Pros Share Survival Stories

November 5, 2009
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The annual Remodeling Show took place in Indianapolis last week. I used the opportunity to poll contractors at the show, who were mostly from the Midwest.

My poll was a single question: How is your business performing in your current market conditions?

A few common themes emerged. See if you can spot them among the contractor quotes that follow.

“We’re staying steady doing need-to projects instead of luxury projects, mostly for people who couldn’t sell their homes and decided to stay.” – Bill Cowdin, Cowdin Remodeling & Design, Canton, OH

“We used to call ourselves a design/build contractor. Now we do everything. We’ll clean garages if that’s what it takes to get a job.” –Indianapolis, IN, remodeling contractor

“Our kitchen and bath business is way up this year for occupied homes. We’ve had seven jobs where people tried to sell their homes and couldn’t. So they decided to stay, remodel their kitchens and bathrooms, and hired us to do them.” – Robert Helms, Edmond Kitchen & Bath, Edmond, OK

“We specialize in disaster repair, but we are taking all kinds of work. We’ll do just about anything to stay busy.” – Dayton, OH, contractor

“We’re selling a lot of windows and roofs, but our siding business is dead. Homeowners are weathering the storm and staying in their homes, but adding few luxuries.” – Pat Carey, Midwest Builders Supply, Grosse Isle, MI

“I’m swamped. I shouldn’t be here [the Remodeling Show] today. Fortunately, the Ohio State University economy has stayed strong. Our only problem is homebuilders who are out of work now saying they are remodelers and lowering the price on jobs.” – Tom Walter, Thomas Walter Remodeling, Columbus, OH

OK, I admit this poll isn’t the least bit scientific. Yet I find speaking with contractors face-to-face far more insightful than clicking through the flood of statistics on the Internet.

So here are the most common tactics shared by Remodeling Show attendees who indicated they were surviving and, in a couple cases, flourishing.

1. Be nimble. Pros willing to broaden their range of work are getting jobs.

2. Be opportunistic. Pros who identify trends are able to extract work. Example: tap into homeowners who want to move, but can’t.

3. Be competitive. Many pros said they had downsized and reduced overhead to compete against other construction pros and handymen.

4. Be lucky. It helps to be in a good market. Two contractors from Oklahoma and one from Columbus, OH, described their markets as healthy. In fact, they were hoping I wouldn’t mention their markets in this blog because they don’t want more competition.

My guess is that most construction pros have considered these four options. But maybe it’s time to take one or more to the next level.

Perhaps it’s time to go after work beyond your specialty (and possibly below your best skills), focus more deeply on any pockets of business that are generating revenue right now, or target a nearby market that is healthier than yours.

At next year’s Remodeling Show (Sept. 15-17, 2010, Baltimore), I’m planning to ask construction pros a different question: “How are you keeping up with the boom in business in your market?”

Let’s plan for 2010 to be a comeback year.
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