Home Improvement Sees Growth While New Home Sales Slump

Architects, contractors, remodelers and design-build firms report optimism

While landscape and outdoor specialty segments see a dip.

A good portion of the renovation and design industry is feeling optimistic about its business prospects, according to the latest Houzz Renovation Barometer, released this week. The quarterly index tracks optimism among architects, designers, general contractors and remodelers, design-build firms, building and renovation specialty firms, and landscape and outdoor specialty firms. 

Four out of six industry sectors reported optimism for the first quarter of 2017 in line with one year ago. Notably, the confidence of architects rose, after having dwindled the past several quarters. But confidence among building specialty and outdoor specialty firms dipped slightly for the time of year, perhaps due to stormy winter weather conditions. Labor shortages also are continuing to hold back some firms, particularly in the Midwest. Read on to get the latest pulse of the renovation market.

Labor shortages continue. Three out of 4 general contractors, remodelers and design-build firms reported moderate to severe labor shortages across a broad range of skilled trades. Finish carpenters are in shortest supply. General laborers are also difficult to hire.

Shortages are worst in the Midwest. The middle portion of the United States is experiencing the most severe labor shortages across most of the trades.

Down about 635,000 employees. Between January 2007 and January 2011, a period of crisis for the housing market, U.S. residential building and remodeling firms and specialty trade firms (such as plumbers and carpenters) together lost about 1.35 million employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These two sectors have gained back about 710,000 employees as of March 2017. But there are still 635,000 fewer workers than at the 2007 peak: 420,000 fewer workers in the specialty trades and 215,000 in residential building.

(Note that these numbers do not include people working in the field who don’t have an employee, for example, a plumber working solo.)

Architect optimism bounces back. After a few quarters of declining optimism, the Barometer reading for architects’ sentiment about the state of their industry ticked up 12 points during the first quarter of 2017, to 66, compared with 54 during the last three months of 2016. (A reading over 50 indicates that more firms are reporting that business activity is higher than reporting it is lower, compared to the prior quarter.) 

For all the industry sectors, an uptick in Barometer scores is typical in the first quarter of the year compared with the last quarter of the year, when the volume of work tends to be lower. So it’s helpful to see how scores compare with the same quarter in the previous year, in this case the first quarter of 2016. Scores for architects and designers are now nearly at the same level as one year ago.

Scores for contractors, remodelers and design-build firms are up. The Barometer scores for design-build firms and general contractors and remodelers also rose in the first three months of this year, compared with the last three months of 2016. For general contractors and remodelers, the score is at the same level as in the first quarter of 2016. The score for design-build firms compared with a year earlier is nearly the same, up just one point.

Landscape and outdoor specialties see optimism dip from one year ago. Scores are up compared with the previous quarter for landscape and outdoor specialty firms, as well as specialty building and renovation firms. Landscape and outdoor specialties include landscape architects, designers and contractors; outdoor replacement trades such as pavers; and outdoor product installers, manufacturers and resellers of items such as pools and spas. But notably, the scores for these two groups are down compared with one year earlier. Weather has a much bigger effect on these two groups than on the others.

Number of inquiries and size of projects are up from fourth-quarter 2016. This chart show the components of the Houzz Renovation Barometer: the number of new inquiries, the number of new projects or orders, and the size of new projects or orders. The score of 74 for architecture firms in first-quarter 2017 indicates that for many firms, the number of inquiries was up compared with the prior quarter. Their score of 67 for new projects or orders shows a similar uptick. All industry segments reported an upward trend in scores for inquiries and new projects from the last quarter, while the picture from one year ago is mixed.

Northeast firms are feeling less buoyant. Compared with other regions, building or renovation specialty firms and outdoor or landscaping specialty firms in the Northeast are projecting weaker confidence than is typical for the beginning of the year. Other industry groups in the Northeast are also indicating relatively weaker confidence. The Houzz research team attributes the weakness to mid-March storms; bad weather can depress business activity for these specialty firms in particular.

The Houzz Renovation Barometer survey was fielded March 24 to April 12, 2017, and received responses from 2,919 professionals.