Observations from Baltimore

by lbanyay@solagroup.com

Up until my first Remodeling Show in 2003, I had never been to Baltimore. Now more than a decade later, the city is fully linked in my mind to the show. Every other year over the past 11, I have been there in the fall, enjoying this spirited gathering of remodelers and suppliers. 

Aside from the fact that a huge number of remodeling professionals work in nearby East Coast cities, there is something about Baltimore that brings out the best in the industry. The conversations seem to stay with me. In 2003, I recall a trip to Fell’s Point for dinner with several remodelers with whom I am still in regular contact. This time was no different.

Mainstream optimism is back. The bygone downturn in remodeling was horrific for many, particularly those whose focus had been high-end, discretionary projects. Over the past three years, however, the ranks of those remodelers expressing optimism in real terms – longer backlogs, bigger projects, higher profits, etc. – has grown. This year would be the first since 2007 where negativity was fully in the rear view mirror. This is not yet a go-go economy, but the rising stock market, the increasing house prices and growth in existing home sales have bolstered nearly everyone at the show.

Picking clients has never been more important. Back in ’03 I had the pleasure of attending a seminar presented by Boston remodeler Paul Eldrenkamp of Byggmeister Inc. Although he spoke about many subjects that day, Eldrenkamp drove home to me the importance of not going too far down the path with the wrong clients. During the downturn, any client was the right client. Today, just as it was in ’03, any client that seems like they might be a problem – too dithery, too distracted, too nickel-and-dimey, and God-forbid prone to litigation – should get the heave. Of course you should do it nicely, but nothing eats your time and your profit like a client with a latent behavior disorder. 

Selling the dream might be back. Many industry observers posit that there will never be an era quite like the first half of the last decade, when discretionary remodeling spending ticked up ever higher in lock step with rising house prices. Back then, my friend Mark Richardson observes, the best sales people were selling the dream, creating a grand vision for the possibilities. After all, banks were approving HELOCs with 115 percent loan to values. The bigger the project, the greater the resulting home value. We are not quite back to those good/bad old days but the rising stock market – up 165 percent in the past five years – and some really good times overall for the top 1 percent of households have made this particular brand of selling relevant again. In contrast, much of the selling that works best is presenting the house as a patient – focusing on a la carte items that need to be done in order to maintain the client’s investment in their home. I am now hearing again about clients whose jobs have grown dramatically from start to finish, so don’t be afraid to once again sell the dream.

One last note: Thanks to all of those who attended our Qualified Remodeler Awards Night in at the B&O Railroad museum. We had a great group of award-winning remodelers on hand. Stay tuned for details about our event next fall, when the show will be held once again in Chicago, this time at Navy Pier. It’s always a great event, wherever it is held, but Chicago is no Baltimore, in this context.

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