Thrifty homeowners become renovation gurus

Consumers turning hands-on to save money

jsalman@bradenton.comFebruary 8, 2012 

MANATEE -- Lingering struggles in the economy have furnished a jolt to home improvement retailers as consumers look to cut costs by tackling renovation projects themselves.

More homeowners across Southwest Florida are opting to tackle building projects themselves rather than upgrade into a new home because they are locked into an underwater mortgage.

Many also are resuming home renovations put off during the height of the recession. But homeowners are taking the jobs incrementally, and learning to do it themselves to save cash, experts said.

While that’s bad news for contractors and painters, it bodes well for the specialty retailers that stock those supplies.

“With the housing market depressed, more people are doing improvements to upkeep their home and doing things to make it more appealing to stay,” said Craig Fishel, spokesman for Home Depot. “That’s a trend we’ve seen over the last several years.”

Attendance at Home Depot’s weekly workshops has surged since the housing bust. The seminars highlight tips on home improvement projects from crown moldings to plumbing and the incandescent light bulb phase out.

Lowe’s, which opened a new store in Sarasota this month, also has seen traffic climb on its project help websites.

Many consumers are testing the waters with small projects first. Instead of jumping into a complete kitchen remodel, they’re re-grouting tile, resurfacing cabinets and installing new light fixtures, Lowe’s spokeswoman Jaclyn Pardini said.

“We’re definitely seeing people take on small updates, or projects they can do over a weekend,” she said. “Decor updates are very popular right now as an easy and low-cost improvement.”

The trend has worked to the benefit of retailers’ bottom lines.

Home Depot saw its net sales for the nine months ending Oct. 30 jump 3 percent over the same time a year ago, reaching $54.38 billion.

The home improvement giant reported $3.1 billion in year-to-date net earnings and $18.7 billion in gross profits -- both greatly outpacing 2010, according to the latest quarterly financial statement filed with the SEC in November.

Competitor Lowe’s reported similar results, with net sales gaining 1 percent over the nine months ending Oct. 28 to $38.58 billion. The company’s earnings, however, took a hit from increased liabilities.

Heading into their busiest time of year -- especially in snowbird-heavy Southwest Florida -- the retailers are bringing on additional staff. Spring for home improvement retailers is like Christmas for department stores.

Home Depot announced last month it will be hiring about 70,000 temporary workers at its U.S. stores for the spring, about 10,000 more than last year. Lowe’s said it plans to hire 40,000 temporary workers as well.

Neither store could provide exact numbers locally, but the temporary positions will be available in just about every department storewide.

Even smaller retailers that call Manatee home have enjoyed a similar rise in business due to many of the same housing market struggles.

“We’re definitely seeing some of that,” said Ted Baer, manager of Crowder Bros. Ace Hardware store on Manatee Avenue in Bradenton. “More people are trying projects themselves.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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