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Des Moines Home Values Appreciated During Covid-19.

For the past few months we’ve been talking with professionals in various roles within the construction industry, hearing how the COVID-19 quarantine has affected their businesses. Although most have made significant changes to their day-to-day practices, activity has remained strong for the builders and REALTORS® interviewed for BUILD Des Moines (see May and June issues).

This month we spoke with a number of local remodelers to get their perspective. The past several months have been unprecedented for this side of the residential construction industry. Here’s what they had to say.

Corey Gersdorf
AIM Kitchen & Bath

When the quarantine was announced in mid-March, activity for many remodelers came to a screeching halt. At AIM, activity slowed, but the company was fortunate enough to remain open throughout and reduce wait times on upcoming projects.

“We had a handful of clients who postponed projects that were scheduled to start in the spring,” says Corey Gersdorf. “But we were able to keep our doors open and keep our guys busy the entire time.”

He says the company instituted a number of safety practices for the protection of homeowners as well as employees and subcontractors.

“We disinfect everything daily, even our work boots if customers request it. Our safety measures changed frequently as guidelines were updated, but we actually went beyond the state guidelines so that everyone felt comfortable.”

A large portion of AIM’s activity was on the sales and design sides. “Homeowners have been pretty cautious about consultations and about starting new projects,” Gersdorf says. “So until recently, there hadn’t been a lot of new work starting. But our sales and design teams have been busy pursuing existing leads and consulting with homeowners. There’s been time for in-depth planning, so we were ready to go as soon as things started opening back up again.”

Like most businesses, AIM began utilizing virtual tools to maintain communication with staff and clients, from live online consultations to email correspondence, depending on the comfort level of the client.

Gersdorf says, “This will definitely change how we do business going forward. It won’t change our focus as a company, but we will certainly be implementing a lot of these tools more often than we used to, depending on what homeowners may want and are comfortable with.”

As quarantine restrictions have begun loosening, the phones at AIM have been ringing off the hook.

“Initially homeowners seemed to be looking at smaller-scale projects, things that will make their home more livable but require less of an investment for people who are uncertain about the economic situation. But that’s expanding all the time,” Gersdorf says.

“There’s no playbook for what we’re going through right now, but we’re doing our best to make sure every client still has fun. Remodeling is stressful enough. We want them to enjoy the experience as well as the finished project. That hasn’t changed.”

Harold Cross
Archadeck of Central Iowa

“For the most part, March and April were like lost months. People were really nervous about spending money,” says Harold Cross.

With the sudden onset of shelter-in-place restrictions and workers either furloughed or working from home, few homeowners were willing to pursue projects not considered required or necessities.

“We had a couple of projects on the drawing board that continued as planned, but most of our active projects were put on indefinite hold,” Cross says.

As this holding pattern dragged on from weeks into months, Cross says many remodeling and construction firms struggled to gauge long-term projections. But because outdoor living space projects are what Archadeck focuses on, when work picked up again, it accelerated quickly. “May just exploded. We’ve definitely been making up for lost time in the last two months. As the new ‘staying home is safest’ lifestyle sank in, homeowners began looking for ways to adapt and use their homes better. Outside is a logical, healthy expansion for many families.”

While the company was able to reduce its construction backlog during the slow months, the early season lull meant some good building opportunities slipped by during the nice spring weather. “We can make up sales in this current environment much faster than we can make up good-weather building opportunities,” says Cross.

“We’ve always promoted the idea of outdoor living. Now those projects are hugely popular. We’re talking with clients about everything from smaller projects to ones with more amenities, like screened porches, outdoor kitchens, and outdoor living spaces with TVs, movie projectors, and more.”

The Archadeck design center has remained open for scheduled appointments, and the company has been following safe practices to meet with clients. Despite the extreme downturn in March and April, Cross says Archadeck has had record business since. “By mid-June, our total sales contacts had exceeded all of 2019. We’re still trying to wrap our arms around that. It’s impossible to predict whether the current pace is a short-term boom or an ongoing trend.”

In the meantime, Archadeck is working to find a balance during the present intense workload. “We implemented a number of digital and virtual tools that worked well during the quarantine. We’ll likely continue offering these options in the future. But personal relationships are important to how we do business. That won’t change.”

Jesse Bryngelson
Bryngelson Builders

Jesse Bryngelson says the coronavirus had its biggest impact on his business so far in mid-March. “Business went from 100 to 0 in a week. And there was no way to see it coming, so there was no way to prepare for it either.”

The Johnston builder was able to move some projects around on the schedule so work could continue with homeowners who were less affected by the restrictions. But he says the quarantine effect was really more than just a safety issue.

“Right away, we had some smaller jobs canceled or postponed due to safety concerns. But since then, the issue has been more logistical. Homeowners are working from home; kids are home. It’s just not conducive to have a crew working in those situations.”

There were a couple of weeks when work seemed to come to almost a full stop, but Bryngelson says the company was back to full-time pace fairly quickly.

“We started by asking, ‘What can we do right now?’ We were proactive from the beginning. We wanted to work and we wanted to make sure our clients were comfortable with us in their homes.”

Bryngelson gave each homeowner full control over whether projects would continue or be postponed, and the company also offered to make other adjustments as homeowners requested.

“Because we hang temporary walls and keep our team pretty separate from the rest of the living space, we haven’t had to worry about masks as much. But we do whatever makes the homeowner comfortable. Sometimes that meant doing our consultations and updates with virtual tools instead of in person.”

Much of the paperwork was done virtually as well, which was a change Bryngelson says was long overdue in some cases.

“Some cities have not been really receptive to paperless permit processes, but the quarantine restrictions forced everyone to get up to speed quickly if they wanted to keep homes sales moving,” he explains.
This was important because shuttered retail showrooms made front-end sales and design planning extremely difficult.

“We’ve seen new clients as things began opening up again who were ready and motivated as a result of the quarantine. A remodeling project is usually something people think about for years. Spending all this time at home has been the trigger that motivated a lot of homeowners.”

Devan Kaufman
Kaufman Construction

Throughout the quarantine Kaufman Construction and KC Handyman remained busy, shifting focus in some ways and adapting as customer needs and concerns warranted.

“The handyman side focused on exterior projects for the most part,” says Devan Kaufman. “And Tracy [Kaufman] kept up on the changing standards as well as scheduling handyman projects. She took care of making sure everyone at Kaufman had the additional supplies they needed to sanitize and protect themselves and the homeowners.”

Having been through the ups and downs of business for a couple of decades, Kaufman says his company responded as it does to all challenges.

“We didn’t panic. We took a rational, calculated approach because we wanted to make sure we could keep working. We paid attention to our employees, clients, and trades and listened to what they said they needed.”

Mid-quarantine, Kaufman opted to have as many staff as possible work from home, and the company began handling sales and many client consultations virtually.

“We were concerned at first about that feeling impersonal, but we were able to be efficient and still have good conversations with our clients.”

The company was also fortunate that as the quarantine began, there were a couple of large projects going in which the homeowners were not living on site. That enabled work to continue as the company regrouped on other jobs.

“We only had one project completely put on hold. But that was because the homeowners had extended family staying with them during quarantine, and a remodeling project just wasn’t possible at the time,” he explains.

Kaufman says he was concerned during the first few weeks that restrictions would make it difficult to continue sales calls, but that hasn’t been the case. “Leads are still strong. People have had the opportunity to live more in their homes and take a critical look at what would enhance their lifestyle. So when they call, they know what they need to change.”

Some of the COVID-related changes may remain in place as restrictions are lifted, but Kaufman says virtual tools will always be just that—tools. “This is a relationship business for our employees and for our clients. We can’t maintain the company culture we value if we rely solely on virtual communication.”

Like every challenge, this one has taught the company new skills. It’s also a reminder of what to value.

Greg Arganbright
Woodharbor Kitchen Bath & Home

Like most other remodelers, Woodharbor was virtually stopped in its tracks when the quarantine was announced in March. “Through our retail showroom, we typically have three or four new leads every week,” explains Greg Arganbright. “As a result of the quarantine, we had nothing for more than a month.”

Some projects already in the works kept the company busy during the slowest period, but a handful of other scheduled jobs were put on hold until just recently. “We had one project, an outside addition, that we were able to keep going, even when nearly everything else stopped. And another client had bought a home that they wanted remodeled prior to moving in, so we could continue on that job as well,” he says.

“We worked hard with our sales and design teams to fill the gap when things dropped off. Things are starting to come back together now, but it was sobering to watch. There was so little one could do to address the situation.”

Arganbright says the nature of Woodharbor’s work means crews typically practice social distancing anyway, so masks have not been necessary on most projects. But homeowners are consulted beforehand to ensure that workers are taking all precautions the homeowners would like.

“The vast majority of our work is kitchens and baths, and those two areas really penetrate the entire home,” says Arganbright. “For a lot of clients, they just weren’t comfortable having crews in their homes for a while.”

Woodharbor did utilize virtual tools for some ongoing communication, but Arganbright says planning and design consultations are better served by in-person meetings, so he doesn’t anticipate a significant uptick in virtual communication long-term.

“The COVID situation revealed how vulnerable our society was in areas like nursing homes and senior apartment facilities. Aging-in-place projects were already a growing part of our business, and I expect we’ll see even more of these in the future.”

With architects and designers skilled in that aspect of the market, Arganbright says Woodharbor is in a good position to help homeowners adapt their homes, whether for their own needs or to serve elderly parents.

He adds that recent weeks have indicated consumer confidence is returning, and Woodharbor’s sales leads have steadily increased as well.

“We are still practicing smart social distancing efforts, but we are working in person with clients again, and that is very encouraging.”