Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11/2001: Remodelers Remember

9/11/2013: This article originally appeared on d5R two years ago. Seems appropriate to publish it again today, along with these words from President Obama today, in an observance at the Pentagon in memorial of the attacks 12 years ago. 

"Together we pause and we pray and we give humble thanks -- as families and as a nation -- for the strength and the grace that from the depths of our despair has brought us up again, has revived us again, has given us strength to keep on."

See the original for photos and reader comments

John Rusk, Rusk Renovations, New York, N.Y.
September 11th was one of those beautiful days. Clear, crisp, sunny. We had our 10-year-old daughter in middle school at 65th Street, our seven-year-old daughter at 96th Street and my wife, Mary, at 115th Street. Our offices and home were on 215th Street.

When we heard of the first plane, we turned on the TV and saw the second plane hit. I called my wife, and her immediate response was that we had to pick up the kids. It took me a moment of suggesting that over-reacting would be more damaging and that staying in school would be the most normal thing until my idiot brain turned off. I picked up Mary first and we hardly spoke as we drove to get our seven-year-old. We had no idea what was going on, how many more attacks there would be. Mary went into the school.

Our daughter kind of bounced into the back seat talking a mile a minute asking why we’d picked her up and whether she could eat her lunch. Suddenly, all my personal worries and fears got knocked out of my mind as we talked with her. She was up and she was seven, and she took us along with her. We drove down to 65th and picked up her sister. Her school was already getting calls for the children whose parents worked at the Twin Towers.

We went back home to 215th Street. It was still a sunny day. The smoke hadn’t started to drift up yet, the fighter planes hadn’t started their flyovers. And we sat and watched TV and talked about it until all the questions were talked out. Then we never went back. We did not go to the site of the attacks, ever. While watching the events on TV gave my daughters information and answers, I wanted to protect them from the trauma of those crushed buildings and screaming people. I also knew there would be environmental hazards that I did not want to subject them or us to.

We were lucky; none of our friends or acquaintances died that day. Driving down the West Side Highway, we saw the field hospitals set up north of 14th Street, waiting for the injured that never came. There were hardly any injured people. There were just those who were able to make it out, and those who never did.

I remember one of our painters calling me that afternoon. He was doing a punchlist in an apartment, taking some blemishes out of a windowsill, and he admitted that in the scale of recent events, this didn’t make sense to him anymore. I agreed and he went home.

New York has not been the same since. 9/11 had an unintended consequence: It made New York a kinder, more rational place. A few years later there was a massive blackout across the whole city and there was hardly a drop of violence. I think that's because on 9/11, we learned how much we all cared for each other, and when things got really bad, we could all take care of each other the best we could and mourn our city together.

A week after September 11th, we went to a wedding. The groom was a recent immigrant, a Muslim, and the bride’s family had been in the States for generations. They had thought of cancelling the wedding but decided not to. The wedding was very quiet, and the reception started very quietly. We all sat mixed together and heard the story of the poor band -- Muslims driving an unmarked white van had been stopped twice at gunpoint on the way to the reception.

But what the bride and groom understood was that they were in love with each other. And as the reception progressed and cultural traditions became manifest, the friends of the bride and groom could not help but see what we all had in common. Soon we were learning to make the craziest noises behind our hands to spur on the festivities.

It was only as we left the wedding, where we had stayed too late, that we saw those poor musicians pulled over again with guns aimed at their heads. We remembered that we had left a hopeful pocket of humanity while other concerns played out in real time as we did everything we could to protect ourselves.

Whatever issues I may have with government and law enforcement and our military, we have not sustained another serious attack. I think New Yorkers share my affection for what they’ve managed to do through grit and determination.

Our girls never had nightmares. 9/11 became part of their lives but it has had no part in defining them. As for our business, while projects were halted for a while, we too are stronger now than then.

And it was nice that for a brief period the rest of the country reached out to us. I remember great tour groups from the Midwest and Ireland coming to Broadway and how much we loved them for their acts of courage.
John Rusk, Rusk Renovations, New York, N.Y.

Neil Parsons, Design Build Profit, Toms River, N.J.
In 2001 I was the sales director for a large home improvement company in New Jersey (the photo is from that time). September 11th was a Tuesday. While 9/11/01 is a day that no one will ever forget, I remember the day of the week because we had a very expensive full-page ad running in a major newspaper that day. Needless to say, that advertisement was useless.

The Twin Towers stood 15 miles from our main office. Watching the events unfold caused our emotions and thoughts to run the gamut. We made a decision that we should try to conduct business as usual as best we could under the circumstances.

Wednesday mornings were our regularly scheduled sales meetings. As it turned out, on 9/11 we had sold three projects, just below our daily average, even though many client meetings had been cancelled or were impossible to hold. That sales meeting was very informal -- like a roundtable discussion that turned into an effective therapy session. Each sales rep, in turn, told of their client meeting from the day before. The common themes included fear and worry, but these were over-ridden by a sense of Americans uniting and standing strong.

We did get a small amount of criticism for running appointments, but most people applauded our efforts to maintain the status quo.

We decided to pitch in collectively to do our small part to help. Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services company based in the Twin Towers, lost 658 employees on 9/11, two-thirds of its work force. For the remainder of the year we donated a percentage of each sale to the Cantor Fitzgerald family relief fund.
Neil Parsons, Design Build Profit, Toms River, N.J.

Saxon Henry, Adroyt, Brooklyn, N.Y.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working, ironically, on an article about the McArthur Airport on Long Island. My mother called after she had seen news footage of the plane hitting the first tower. I pulled away from the computer to turn on the television and watched in horror as the second plane hit.

I wondered how in the world I could make a deadline given how upset I was feeling, so I called my editor, who is now a dear friend, and she said, “Don’t even think about finishing that piece, Saxon. Air travel is likely going to change so significantly after today that it would have to be rewritten anyway.” How right she was! When I revisited the subject nearly a year later to rewrite the piece, air travel had morphed into something unrecognizable from the experience it had been before 9/11.

I have never written publicly about my experience or about my feelings pertaining to the event because I do not feel my story has any weight compared to those who lost loved ones that day or later, as a result of the illnesses our first responders contracted from working on the site afterwards.

I didn’t lose friends, but I have close friends who did and it is never an easy time of year for them. I was having dinner with one of them last week when she turned to me in the beautifully warm evening air and said, “Isn’t this weather wonderful?” I said, “Yes, it is.” She said, “It’s 9/11 weather.” That is how New Yorkers are; you might not see it as we charge our way through the world, but bubbling beneath our tough veneers is the poignancy that the date brings. What she was really saying is that she still can’t believe something so unthinkable could have happened on such a beautiful day.

Many people never fully recovered their sense of security. I was in the grocery store in 2003 when the blackout occurred. A woman became hysterical because she was convinced it was another terror attack. She was inconsolable, collapsing onto the dirty linoleum floor, her oranges scattering around her, and sobbing into her arms, “Not again, not again, not again!” It was tough to watch but it was honest, and knowing that it’s there is just something you live with subconsciously while not letting it slow you down.

I watch the Naudet brothers’ documentary every year on the date because I don’t want to forget the consequences of our culture refusing to try to understand others who are different. As tough as it is to see that footage, I believe I have to remind myself that this is what happens if we allow ourselves to be close-minded.

Here's a poem I wrote a few months after 9/11:
The Paradise of Sadness
from "A Season in Hell" by Arthur Rimbaud
The light on the still water of the lake
charms the eye. The first touch
of yellow has burgeoned on the limb
as I listen to the scattered warble of the birds.
The cleft in the tree that beckons them home
will become a trap when the crows move in.

Natural enemies. Prolific ferocity.
Safety's illusion. The death pose of road kill:
the curved body of the squirrel
curled on its side on the yellow line
imitating gentle rest.
Swift lull. Slumber. Pitch of night.

We list toward the dark sea of death
in this paradise of sadness.
"What will I do for a cloak?"
Susie asks her son on Halloween.
"Let your darkness be your cloak," he replies.

How will the darkness find us?
In the road, flat on the back, reaching skyward,
eyes dazed as they mirror the soft glow
of a dusk-laden sky;
or turned on the side like a baby in the womb?
They role the footage for the hundredth time.
I watch the floors pancake, the dust rise,
the paper drift rhythmically earthward.
What would those ghosts
who now parade down the altered canyons
have us believe about living?
Saxon Henry, Adroyt, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Saxon is a design/architecture journalist and a principal at Adroyt, a social media consultancy. She has written for many top publications, blogs at Roaming by Design and The Road to Promise, and is the author of Four Florida Moderns, a book about four modernist architects.

Iris Harrell, Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, Calif.
Excluding the recent economic meltdown, I think 9/11 was the scariest time for our business. We had finally outgrown our prior showroom and office space, after clipping along at 30 percent annual growth for a decade. We were so busy that we literally couldn't take on any new business. That's never a good thing; I learned a long time ago that you have to continually increase your capacity so you can do something productive with every lead you get.
So we took a big expansion step and a giant risk: My partner Ann and I decided to sell the old HRI building and buy a new larger building, along with a warehouse behind it that we would lease out. I'm not a big risk-taker, but this was a very calculated risk. We knew we had to grow and expand.

We bought the building in January of 2001, started the remodel in April and were scheduled to move in the week after September 11.

Well, 9/11 hit our business hard. Calls seemed to just stop for a while. Jobs went on hold. The old building didn’t sell, the warehouse didn’t lease. We knew we had to do just over $7 million to keep our ship afloat. We managed to do that -- I worked more, we all did Sandler Sales training, we marketed more, we all ran as fast as we could -- but it was tough.

We've gone through other ups and downs since, of course, and our 9/11 challenges prepared us for them. It also taught us that we have to try to be ready for anything, and that experience has helped us survive and even thrive during “the great recession.” I've also learned that a leader has to be calm in the middle of a storm, and that you don't want to go through it alone. Gather your team. See a therapist if you must. Pray. It takes a lot of courage to live in today's world
Iris Harrell, Harrell Remodeling, Mountain View, Calif.

Brian Nevins, Total Remodeling, Union, N.J.
I will never forget waking up that morning to the sound of my father leaving a message on my answering machine about a plane crashing into the Twin Towers (this was before I had kids and was often able to sleep late). I turned on the TV and saw what I initially thought was a freak accident, but the awful reality soon became clear.

I realized how quiet it was outside. In our part of Jersey you can always hear commercial airlines flying high. It was strange to not hear any ... anywhere ... everything was grounded, except for a few patrolling fighter jets that shot by at one point.

At the time I was working as a manager at Home Depot. I remember driving to work up Route 78W, looking toward the east and seeing the unforgettable sight of the smoke from where the towers stood. I was probably about 20 miles west of New York City. American flags were already being hung from almost every overpass.  I'm sure everyone remembers the patriotic displays and unity that were instantly everywhere. Of course, Home Depot was open for business but the store was empty and the entire staff was in shock. Employees walking around not really knowing the point of being there.

A woman that lived upstairs in my apartment building at the time worked in one of the towers. Her fiance' came home frantic. He had been talking to her on her cell phone as she was trying to get out. The call was cut off and he didn't hear from her for what must have seemed like days. He was a wreck for hours and hours. Eventually she called. She was one of the lucky ones.

When you think about it, it may not be possible to ever completely recover as a society from something like that. But who could argue with the fact that we have done a damn good job doing the best we can? Now the Freedom Tower is going up -- I can see it from the Jersey side, and it's a good feeling.  I like that message: never quit, never give up.

When this time of year comes around I always remember how everyone was a little nicer to each other ... a little more patient ... a little more tolerant. That lasted a while after that. There was unity. Very little horn honking and much less rushing. I think we all developed a higher level of gratitude for one another and for the goodness of our lives and loved ones. It's amazing that it takes something like that to happen to make us all slow down a little and be a bit friendlier.

What a tragic day.  God bless the families of the people lost, and all the rescue workers that ran toward World Trade to help save a life. Of course, many lost their own in the process.
Brian Nevins, Total Remodeling, Union, N.J.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Remodeling Industry Loses an Icon

as published in, Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013. See the original article for photos and links and to post comments

A Fair Markup: Remembering Walt Stoeppelwerth

In 1965, before most remodelers even identified themselves by that profession, Walt Stoeppelwerth gave them a gift: He started a company to provide construction professionals with much-needed information about cost estimating and business management. He first published The HomeTech Remodeling & Renovation Cost Estimator Manual, as a pocket-sized, 122-page publication.

In the years that followed, Walt developed a number of other guides and software programs that revolutionized how remodelers work. At the same time, he traveled the country giving seminars, writing articles and sharing information and guidelines with an industry that sorely needed both.

"A champion of the industry and a true visionary, Walt was an influential pioneer who laid the groundwork for remodeling companies to realize their full potential," according to Duane Hunton, who is now HomeTech's president. "He helped them transition their skills from a trade to a profitable business model within a multi-billion dollar industry."

Walt Stoeppelwerth died February 18. Below are tributes from a few of the tens of thousands of remodelers he helped, whether they realized it or not.

A revelation to remodelers
by Sal Alfano

I had the pleasure of working as Walt's editor at Remodeling magazine, where he was a columnist from volume 1 issue 1. Walt was one of the most generous people I have ever known. He gave freely of his time and expertise, and it earned him the respect of an entire industry. A lot what we take for granted today about the remodeling business began with something Walt said or wrote or thought about our industry. Three things stand out in my mind:

Estimating and business management

In the early days of Hometech, Walt realized that the CSI classification system for construction phases wasn’t appropriate for small remodeling businesses, so he created 27 cost categories for his estimating and management system. They quickly became an industry standard. In fact, Walt was largely responsible for the wide adoption of the very idea of keeping track of costs in categories, in addition to the categories themselves.

Lead carpenter system

Walt may not have invented the lead carpenter system, but he more than anyone in the industry is responsible for its widespread adoption. The idea of a job foreman who had one foot in the field and the other in the office was a revelation to remodelers who were looking for ways to keep overhead low and keep quality high.

Markup and margin

When Walt first proposed a 1.67 markup multiplier, contractors laughed at him. They were convinced that margins that high would price them right out of the market. And they believed that markup was too high right up to the moment they tried it and it worked. All of sudden, the tire-kickers were gone and they were working for customers who were willing to pay for their services. For the first time, many of them were actually earning a profit over wages. For literally thousands of sole proprietors and small S-Corp remodeling companies, it was an epiphany.

Sal Alfano is the editorial director at the Remodeling Group of Hanley Wood Business Media, and the former chief editor of Remodeling magazine.


A fair markup

by Fred Case

Walt and I entered the remodeling business about the same time and became good friends. His energy and intensity were motivational. His wisdom of a ‘fair markup’ was a keystone for many as they moved from their craft to develop their businesses. Walt was dedicated to more professionalism in the remodeling industry and he certainly gave us that. He will be missed by many.

Fred Case is the founder and CEO of Case Design / Remodeling, one of the country's largest full-service remodeling companies and now marking its 52nd year in business. The company is based in Bethesda, Md.


The business math of professional remodeling
by Neil Parsons

I was introduced to Walt Stoeppelworth's work by one of my vendors in the late 1980s. His teachings opened my eyes to the business math of a professional remodeling company. Before then, the only math I was aware of in the remodeling industry was on a tape measure. If there was a remodeling Mount Rushmore, Walt's image should certainly be there.

The information received from Walt and others, while understood, was not applied instantaneously like flipping a switch. There was a personal and business maturation in place at that time. Today, of all the hats I've worn, I consider myself a sales guy with a firm grasp on the money and math — a rare combination. I still use a phrase that I adopted in the early 90s: "When you double you're never in trouble, but when you triple you make money!" A truly idealistic mantra, but it simply illustrates the needed path of thinking when addressing markup and profit.

Neil Parsons and his staff at Design Build Profit provide business coaching, sales and marketing training, and offer direct design and project development services through Design Build Pros for several established remodeling companies.

From hoping to knowing how to make money
by Paul Lesieur

When I was starting out, little accurate information existed to help a new young contractor understand how to price work to ensure profitability. With the help of Walt Stoeppelwerth I went from hoping to knowing my jobs would make money.

The first construction software I bought was a floppy disc set of Walt's HomeTech Estimating System. I was writing a check as soon as the discs came out — and I still remember how long it took to get them up and running! Walt was a proponent of accurate estimating, charging the right price, the lead carpenter system and design build. A true visionary and friend to small contractors, he predicted the future of remodeling better than anyone. Our industry has lost a giant.

Paul Lesieur is a longtime contractor in Minneapolis (Silvertree Remodeling) and pundit (through RemodelCrazy, among other forums) who never misses a chance to be an instigator on remodeling topics.


Sharing the wealth

by Tim Faller

I had the privilege of working in the Washington, D.C., area, where Walt was active in NARI and the industry as a whole. As a consequence, I not only heard of him but talked with him on many occasions. People have asked me if I invented the lead carpenter system, and the answer is no. It goes back to Walt. It was his pushing that gave the idea traction in the remodeling market — and that traction allowed me to pick it up and run with it.

Walt often “shared the wealth” with me by referring companies and organizations to me as a consultant on the lead carpenter concept. Most importantly, I hear remodelers in every city speak of him as someone who helped so many understand the real cost of remodeling and making a real profit. Walt, your influence on my life and the industry will endure. Many thanks!

Tim Faller is a hands-on carpenter, author of The Lead Carpenter Handbook, and a consultant to the remodeling industry through Field Training Services. He also operates FalCon Remodeling and Handyman in Westerly, R.I.


Walt to the rescue

by Joan Stephens

It would be difficult to find a remodeling company that hasn't been influenced in some way, either directly or indirectly, by Walt Stoeppelwerth. In the early 80s when we were trying to figure out how to estimate remodeling projects, Walt came to our rescue. Through his program we were able to transition from eking out a living to actually making money in the remodeling business.

We will miss seeing Walt at trade shows, but the legacy he left will live on in many remodelers who benefited from his great training.

Joan Stephens is co-owner of Stronghold Remodeling, in Boise, Idaho. She served as NARI national president from 2004 to 2005.

Permission to raise prices and be successful

by Shawn McCadden

I first attended one of Walt’s seminars when I worked at my dad’s remodeling business. It was the 1980s, and the seminar was at Somerville Lumber in Massachusetts. Walt's approach and presentation style immediately captured my attention. I became a fan right away. It was like he gave me and the other attendees permission to raise our prices and be successful. My dad’s business and what I did within it was never the same!

Over the years and as I was developing my own business, I attended dozens of Walt's presentations and several of the multiday workshops he put on at HomeTech, in Bethesda, Md. What made me keep attending, in addition to his valuable wisdom, was his friendly and down-to-earth personality. He always and graciously gave me an ear and advice about the things I was working on in my business. We also bantered many times about industry topics like sales, markup, the lead carpenter system and project packaging. I owe a lot of my success to what I learned from Walt and HomeTech. So does our industry.

Shawn McCadden is a former remodeling business owner and a nationally known columnist, speaker and consultant to the remodeling industry. He writes more about Walt in this post on his blog.


This strange thing called "overhead"

by Rob Baugher

I was first introduced to Walt in the early 1980s, when he and Linda Case were coming to town with several others. At that time, there were no conventions or seminars or even many books or publications on remodeling.

What Walt brought to the industry were sound business basics. I remember that he very confidently explained what the cost of business was: materials + labor + this strange thing he called "overhead." Included in overhead was a line for owner's income and profit (separate from labor?!!!!). It was the first time anyone had shared such valuable information with me.

Among other things, Walt told us that the cost of operating a remodeling business was at least 50 percent more than material and labor. He also told us we really needed a professional markup of 67 percent in order to pay all the expenses that we would incur from our operations in this industry because it was so different from new home building. He said that he knew many other remodelers that had used this formula and had found success with it.

Walt wanted to help the carpenter to understand his or her own business and charge a fair price so he or she could do great work.

Really, Walt and a few others like him paved the way for the entire industry to grow and mature. Within a year we began to hear of conventions and more educational seminars and then books.

Through the years I heard other remodelers call him "Uncle Walt." I think that speaks for itself. When I heard of Walt's death, I thanked God for what he meant to my business. Walt did what most of us try to do every day. He found his purpose and went after it with his whole heart. We are better from having known him.

Rob Baugher is CEO of Baugher, Inc., a 39-year-old design and remodeling company in Homewood, Ala.


Charging enough and knowing what you're worth

by Reva Kussmaul

Walt Stoeppelwerth was a wonderful mentor to my remodeling practice. I first saw him some 20 years ago at a West Coast building show. He spoke about charging enough and knowing what we're worth. This is my favorite quote, and advice that everyone in this industry should heed if they want to be successful in business:

“The number-one problem in the remodeling industry is that relatively few feel confident enough to charge customers what their work is worth.”
— Walt Stoeppelwerth
Most remodelers in the room were rather baffled by how adamant Walt was about this. It wasn't until about 12 years I really got the importance of this statement. When I wasn't charging enough — not only in terms of my worth but also in terms of making a profit and earning a living — I continually didn't have enough money. When I finally began to follow Walt's advice, my company became profitable.

From there I decided to become a remodel coach: I coach contractors on the importance of charging enough to be profitable, and I coach homeowners on the importance of hiring contractors who communicate clearly about money.

"Charging enough" has been and continues to be a huge problem in our industry. It is the cause of so many of remodeling nightmare stories we hear about. Walt was a pioneer in this discussion, and it is partially because of him that I continue to have it.

Reva Kussmaul is a former contractor who began Remodel 411 10 years ago to bridge communications gaps between homeowners and remodelers. Based in Pasadena, Calif., she is working on a book for remodelers about successful business operations.

A genuine desire to help

by Paul Winans

Walt Stoeppelwerth did a remarkably good job of charting a path for success for remodeling company owners. Walt's insistence on remodeling companies adopting a professional markup was revolutionary. His genuine desire to help people like me be more successful than we would have been otherwise is much appreciated and admired. Walt's work with remodelers inspires me in my consulting work. He will be missed.

Paul Winans operated a successful design/build remodeling company in Berkeley, Calif., for many years. Since selling his company and moving to Oregon, he has consulted to remodeling businesses as a facilitator for Remodelers Advantage.


Taking the emotion out of numbers

by Jack Whealan

I first met Walt at a HomeTech seminar more than 20 years ago. I was a fledgling business owner with a ton of jam and not a lot of business smarts. My dad saw an ad for a remodeling business seminar at a hotel off of the N.J. Parkway, and off we went.

At the time, the concept of overhead was a mystery to me, and I was of the mind that a ‘fair price’ included only direct costs. Well, Walt opened my eyes. I still remember exactly how he laid it up, like a parent who lovingly but firmly rebukes their child. Some people argued with him (I know they didn’t last in business), and initially I felt a little guilty about his markup advice, but it played out exactly as he said it would. To this day, I see my top-line costs (COGS), revenues, and expenses with absolute clarity because of that initial prodding. Walt helped me take the emotion out of the numbers. I embraced his philosophy and never looked back.

I met Walt a second time at a seminar for home inspections, this time at a hotel near Shea Stadium in Queens. It was the same eye-opening experience and launched my company's distressed housing arm. Walt's advice has yielded one thousand times the investment.

Walt was an industry giant. To give you an idea of how far-reaching his effect has been on my businesses and me, I just wrapped up yet another estimate on HomeTech software (see photo). In my opinion, his ideas on organic development and management fly in the face of the garbage that’s coming out of many construction management programs. His hands-on "lead man" model and the faddish, clean-hands construction manager model are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and I proudly embrace the former.

Walt was old school in that he knew that construction is a noble profession that takes years to learn and costs $.67 on the dollar for direct costs and $.33 on the dollar for indirect costs. Walt also knew that people who are good at it deserve to get paid. I can only imagine how he felt about TV shows that glorify DIYers and bathroom remodels costing approximately $1.50. RIP Walt. Your legacy is a great one.

Jack Whealan is the managing partner and owner of SkyTop Builders, in Mills River, N.C.


The difference between margin and markup

by Darius Baker

I had been involved with NARI for about two years when, in 1991, our local chapter had Walt out for an all-day seminar on how to estimate. I picked up his program and have used it ever since. His presentation was where I finally "got" the difference between margin and markup. I never forgot that and immediately became more profitable. I count that day as the major turning point from working for a wage to making money.

I refer new and struggling remodelers to his program frequently. Walt made a lasting impression on not only me but our entire industry and should never be forgotten for that contribution.

Darius Baker is the owner of D&J Kitchens & Baths, founded 32 years ago in Sacramento, Calif. He is also a longtime member and leader of NARI, National Association of the Remodeling Industry. See this d5R profile of his business.

as published in, Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013. See the original article for photos and links and to post comments

So many remodeling bloggers! The JDR awards

Jackson Design & Remodeling is a sophisticated remodeling company in the San Diego area, and for the last several years they have sponsored their own industry-wide blogging awards. It's been fascinating to watch this boots-on-the-ground industry embrace social media so enthusiastically in the past few years, and to see so many talented communicators emerge from the remodeling trenches.

And wouldn't you know it: I'm happy that d5R has been nominated for the "Best Blogger Remodeling" award, and that I (Leah Thayer) have been nominated for "Best Blogger Microblog" (which means Twitter) award.

Here's the d5R site.
Here's my Twitter feed.

Take a minute to browse the entries and cast your vote. It's a fun campaign -- thanks, JDR!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

For Valentine's Day, Loving the Roof Over Her Head

Wow. Here's a beautiful love song for Valentine's Day or any day. Thanks to Ridley Wills of The Wills Company for sharing -- and for contributing to the effort behind Christan's new home. What a great tribute to the comfort of homeownership and the invaluable work of Habitat for Humanity. 

Many remodelers greatly value their work with Habitat for Humanity, as well as with Rebuilding Together. The best part is seeing the impact they can have on homeowners and their families!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bad Reviews on Yelp? How Not to Respond...

Gotten a negative review on Yelp or another consumer-review site, remodelers? Um, don't take it this personally.

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So What About Those Problems with Chinese Drywall, Anyway?

Serious health and structural issues associated with faulty Chinese drywall made big news not long ago, though more among builders of new homes than remodelers. This notice in today's Washington Post caught my eye -- apparently settlements worth $17.4 million have been reached in class-action lawsuits. And homeowners are being sought to collect their shares of the settlement. Or, what might be left of their shares.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Housing Emerges as Economic Bright Spot

Here's some news remodelers and builders may have never expected to see again. From today's Washington Post:
"The nation’s housing market is surging again after years of historic declines, and the unique forces powering its return could last well into 2013.

"The number of homes for sale is at its lowest level since before the recession, sparking competition among buyers that has led to 10 straight months of price increases. The volume of activity is the highest since 2007.
"Builders broke ground in December on the most new housing developments in four years. And interest rates on mortgages are expected to remain near all-time lows through much of the year, galvanizing once-skeptical buyers.

"Together, those factors have helped the beleaguered housing market regain its footing and emerge as one of the economy’s bright spots this year.
"...The return of real estate marks a key milestone in the country’s economic recovery — and not only because it was at the root of the collapse. A healthy housing sector could boost gross domestic product by more than $400 billion, based on housing’s historical portion of the overall economy. It is also a major source of new jobs in construction and indirectly supports industries as varied as retail and local government."
Amen to that.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Today's Numbers: Architecture Billings, Calif. Defaults, Hamptons Home Prices...

Consecutive months that architecture billings have risen: 5

From the American Institute of Architects:
"Business conditions at architecture firms continue to improve. As a leading economic indicator of construction activity, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) reflects the approximate nine to twelve month lag time between architecture billings and construction spending. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported the December ABI score was 52.0, down from the mark of 53.2 in November.  This score reflects an increase in demand for design services (any score above 50 indicates an increase in billings)."

Calif. homes to receive Notices of Default, 4Q 2012: 38,212

That's a six-year low which hasn't been seen since the dawn of the foreclosure crisis. From Mortgage News Daily:
"DataQuick attributed the decline in early foreclosure filing to rising home values, an improving economy, and a shift toward short sales which accounted for an estimated 26 percent of statewide resale activity in the fourth quarter.  The median price paid for a home during the quarter was $300,000, up 22.4 percent from a year ago and 32.2 percent off the median's $227,000 bottom in first-quarter 2009.
"Home values increased through most of 2012, and the rate of increase picked up toward the end of the year. That means fewer and fewer homeowners are underwater, where they owe more than their homes are worth. That in turn means they can sell and pay off the mortgage, or perhaps refinance at today's low interest rates."

U.S. union membership in 2012: 14.3 million

From the New York Times:
"The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the bureau found in its annual report on union membership. That brought unionization to its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent, according to a study by two Rutgers economists, Leo Troy and Neil Sheflin. 
"Labor specialists cited several reasons for the steep one-year decline in union membership. Among the factors were new laws that rolled back the power of unions in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states, the continued expansion by manufacturers like Boeing and Volkswagen in nonunion states and the growth of sectors like retail and restaurants, where unions have little presence."

Average home price in New York's Hamptons: $2.13 million

From Bloomberg:

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Real Remodeling Reviews, False "Filtering"?

And speaking of online reviews ... does Yelp have something against small companies? 

A remodeler writes:
"We as a company have been asking our clients to review us online at various sites like Yahoo, Google, Houzz and Yelp. We have had two new reviews on Yelp's website in the past couple months, only to find that those reviews have been “filtered” by Yelp because they say these are fake or “less relevant” reviews. Although I have responded to Yelp with the clients' information (phone, address, project pictures, etc.) I cannot get even a response back.
"Some companies have noticed that only companies who pay to advertise on Yelp get to 'keep' all their reviews. This website has a link to a petition for the attorney general to investigate Yelp. Could you could rally the troops and gain some support for us and other remodelers around?"
Here is how Yelp describes "filtering," by the way.

So, what say you, remodelers:

Has Yelp filtered out any of your "less trustworthy" reviews? How have you responded? Please comment below.

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Smells Like Home Fries: Remodelers in the 'Hood

What are you good at when you're not "working," remodelers? Can you share it with your clients?

In Atlanta, David Sturm of Attention to Detail Home Remodeling loves to cook. And he's good at it. So after some of his remodeling projects, he cooks for his clients -- maybe a nice dinner in their newly remodeled kitchen, and maybe a casual brunch in their cul de sac.

That's what's going on below. Sturm (shorts and green polo shirt) whipped up "fresh coffee, eggs to order and my famous hash browns" for the neighbors of around this project, a kitchen and second-story makeover.

"We do this every time we remodel in a neighborhood where we desire to do more work," Sturm explains. It's a lot of effort, but I love doing it."

It's good marketing, too. After this particular brunch, Attention to Detail lined up two additional jobs in the same neighborhood.

We're looking for more stories along these lines, remodelers. If you'd like to share a "community building" marketing strategy that works for your business, feel free to comment below. Or shoot me an email:

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Value Selling: Tried This Approach, Remodelers?

Remodelers: Sure, homeowners can look up many of your costs these days -- appliances and fixtures, for instance -- but that doesn't mean they understand or appreciate the real value you offer. Or your real costs, for that matter. What about your company's vehicles, office space, staff training, licenses?

That's where you might want to do some value selling. Here's what Sandler Sales trainer Chip Doyle has to say:

 "My girlfriend took me to Hawaii recently so I was happy to offer to pay for some island tours for the two of us. Instead of letting me forget about work, she adeptly noticed that every tour brochure highlighted the value of the craft that each tour used. $1 million boats for fishing and snorkeling, $1.5 million dollar airplane for island sightseeing, etc. And of course for mere hundreds of dollars you could participate in a tour on each of these expensive vehicles. Their mention of these tour vehicle values was not by accident. They were exploiting a concept known as establishing context, validated by Cialdini in his book Influence. Several other authors have also documented this sales technique.

"Value selling is the concept of pricing products or services not based on their cost but on their value to the buyer. Understanding the context of the value to the buyer allows the buyer to justify the purchase and the salesperson to change how they quote and charge prices...."
Read the rest of Chip's post here

Read Chip's advice on remodeling sales specifically, from these past d5R articles:

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Project Management Software: Is There a One-Stop Remodeling Solution?

What do you use for project management software, remodelers? If you haven't already weighed in, join the conversation on d5R about project management software, in response to a reader who posed this question:
"I've been using Basecamp, however it's coming up short with managing multiple projects. One solution I am looking at is JetStream, which has been created specifically for the construction and remodeling industry. Are there other options out there?"
 Here's some of what your peers are saying:
I'm the definition of small contractor. Have even been referred to as a "Trunk Slammer" in some circles and I use UDA ConstructionSuite. My accountant and biz advisor once emphatically remarked when he found out I use UDA, "YOU use UDA?". It's a chunk of cash fer sure and most likely the big, big, big shops are more likely to use UDA....
I have yet to find one business management software for the remodeling industry that covers everything soup to nuts, from marketing for leads all the way through to re-marketing to customers after selling to them and completing their projects....
And thanks especially to John Clark of @designREMODEL, in Cape Cod, who shared this information (and more):
... I spent the better part of 2 days looking at (and trying out) the many Project Management Programs out there. (Note. I only looked at web based programs that I could access from anywhere with an internet connection.)

This is what I found. Many were very simple and limited. Example: Basecamp

Some had every feature and option possible. Example: Podio. Great for someone computer savvy, overwhelming and complex for most of my clients.

For construction and remodeling companies, there were a number of choices. Examples. Jetstream and BuildTools had many features and options that I liked. However at about an average cost of $250 month.

Ultimately I decided to go with a PMP called Project Bubble that had most of the features that I was looking for, had a shallow learning curve and was simple and easy for clients and trade partners to use. And at $24 a month, easy on the wallet. Most likely I will transition to a industry specific PMP at some point, but for the foreseeable future this program will meet my needs.... 
What about you, remodelers? Learn from your peers and weigh in here.

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Formica Gets Its Mojo Back -- and Now It's Green

Move over (quarried, imported, non-renewable) granite.

Did you see yesterday's d5R article about furniture recycled from beetle-killed pinewood, an otherwise "unusable" but abundantly available resource that, if not recycled, is a leading cause of forest fires? Here's a similar comeback story involving a sustainable, often-overlooked material. Sort of. 

From NPR's Marketplace program:
"...[B]y the 1970s and '80s, Formica had a bit of a bad rap. The smooth surfaces had been chipped or rubbed down to show the brown paper under the pretty colors. By the 1990s, expensive stone countertops became a status symbol, paving over passe Formica.

"But last year, Los Angeles designer Scott Lander chose white Formica for the kitchen in an award-winning project.

"'Most people were asking, 'What is this surface?' Most people didn't even know it was Formica,'" Lander says.

It's also getting more popular with budget remodelers. And, green builders. The company has switched to non-toxic resins, and uses recycled paper. Just one more way Formica is clawing back a little more counter space.
Formica is a classic, no doubt. At a museum several years ago, I saw a familiar item in a display case: a piece of 1950s-era Formica in the classic "boomerang" style. Not long before, I had purchased an old home whose kitchen had last been remodeled in the 1950s, as far as I could tell -- and the wonderful aqua-blue boomerang Formica countertops were a vintage highlight, along with the copper-colored double wall oven.

Too bad I didn't keep them when I remodeled.

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"Like an Online Review on Steroids"

Remodelers luv Houzz. At least that's the sense from many of the remodelers I speak with.

(Ummm, what's Houzz? It's not too late to get on board. Here are two d5R articles providing an overview: Remodelers on Houzz: a "Case" Study. Also: Houzz Party, Remodelrrss Invited.)

This week the site has awarded its 2013 "Best of Houzz" awards to some of the many thousands of contractors that have profiles on the site. One winner is Renewal Design Build of Atlanta, which won two awards, for design and customer satisfaction. Here's a screenshot of the company's Houzz profile.

Peter Michelson, Renewal's CEO (and also featured in this d5R article about online reviews), sent me this email last evening:
In many ways these two awards are like an online review on steroids. It's Lance Armstrong in his prime! Now don't quote me out of context, but if you think about it, winning this award is a highly respected third party that is heavily followed saying:  "You guys rock!" So I am absolutely thrilled to have my amazing team recognized for their excellence in design, craftsmanship, and customer service. 

We have been using Houzz for at least two years.  We direct almost every one of our clients to the site to create and share an inspiration book.  This allows our designers to understand and appreciate our clients' sense of aesthetics.  Conversely, our designers also create inspiration books to share ideas with clients, to ensure during the design and selections process that we are all in alignment.

As a business owner, I am deeply awed and inspired by the brilliance of the site. They have monetized an idea that is a free service to both consumers and professionals. They have found a way to motivate thousands of builders and designers to spend large sums of money (we spend about $1,000/project) on gorgeous architectural photography, upload it to the sight, and remain engaged with the general public. I was at a Houzz event last month in ATL. The room was packed with designers and builders, all begging to offer high quality content to the site with the hopes of using it as lead generation. What they have created is profound.  Truly brilliant.
What about the rest of you, remodelers? Do you have a profile on Houzz?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

HVAC Mistakes and Other Home Performance Problems

"Heating and air conditioning contractors, like the rest of us, make mistakes. They make mistakes that hurt performance and efficiency of the HVAC systems they install and maintain. They make mistakes that hurt their customers sometimes. And they make mistakes that hurt their businesses."
Those opening lines exemplify the kind of writing that makes Energy Vanguard's Allison Bailes one of the best and most accessible thinkers in the home performance industry. Thankfully, he's also a prolific and generous sharer of his expertise. Here are his blog posts from the last month:

The 7 Biggest Mistakes That HVAC Contractors Make.

A Ventless Gas Fireplace is a Liability

and, for fun
What's the BTU Output of a Dragon -- a Furnace with Wings?

Read much more and sign up for the Energy Vanguard blog.

Today's Numbers: In Search of Skilled Construction Labor

Number of employees Bank of America shed between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012: 14,601

 Dogged by continuing problems after the mortgage collapse and subsequent $8.5 billion settlement over foreclosure abuses, Bank of America is whittling expenses -- and employees -- to shore up profitability. From the New York Times:
"For Bank of America and Citigroup, the recent mortgage settlements are a reminder of past mistakes. During the housing boom, Citigroup, like other Wall Street firms, sold to investors billions of dollars of securities backed by subprime mortgages that later hurt its balance sheet. Bank of America largely inherited its mortgage woes through Countrywide Financial, the subprime lending giant it bought in the depths of the financial crisis."

Estimated crowd at Barack Obama's second inauguration yesterday: 500,000 to 1 million

From Reuters:
"Obama's ceremonial swearing-in fell on the same day as the national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. -- and the president embraced the symbolism.
"He took the oath with his hand on two Bibles -- one from President Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery, and the other from King. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights figure Medgar Evers, was given the honor of delivering the invocation at the ceremony."

Number of construction jobs lost since housing peak: more than 2 million

Yet many housing markets around the country are experiencing a shortage of skilled workers. From NPR:
"'I have heard many reports from builders who say they can't hire enough people, they can't find subcontractors, they're unable to get the labor necessary to build homes that they do have on order — even at the low level of building that's occurring right now,' [NAHB chief economist David] Crowe says.

"...Decades ago, [Maret Brothers regional vice president Mike] Holland says, unions trained workers in the trades — skills like plumbing or electrical wiring. But now, companies typically rely on independent contractors — and the companies themselves are reluctant to invest in worker training. "

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Sticker Shock: Could Your Contract Have Avoided This?

It's probably the biggest source of disputes between homeowners and remodelers and also the issue that remodelers least enjoy discussing: the project's ultimate cost, and the reality that it's likely to range higher than the estimate.

From "It's In the Contract (if not, It Should Be)," January 12 d5R:
Set and monitor expectations about pricing

Temptation: You developed a strong and honest estimate. The client understands that actual prices may be higher.

Reality check: The client is shocked that your actual costs are that much higher than the estimate.

Solution: Add language specifying that the job will probably exceed the budget by at least 10 percent.
Attorney Andrea Goldman: "If I had a dime for the number of homeowners who have been shocked by the fact that their job exceeded their budget, I would be a rich woman. It is your job to educate your clients. Do not be coy. Tell them that more often than not, there are concealed conditions that will increase the cost of the project. Make sure they have a cushion built into their budget. I can't tell you how many homeowners are blatantly refusing to pay for change orders because they were unanticipated. Tell them verbally and in writing, and then tell them again."
How do you set and monitor expectations about pricing, remodelers? Read the full story here, and share your thoughts.

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High-Pressure Sales Pitches: You Mean They're Still Around?

On a research assignment during the remodeling go-go days, I observed some sales training for a large, high-volume remodeling company. I couldn't wait to leave the room. Though the sales methods were successful, as the company was (and is) a selling machine, I cringed not only for the fictional homeowners they were preparing to pitch to, but also for the salesmen (yes, they were all men) whose careers hinged on their ability to close the deals.

I thought of the Jack Lemmon character in Glengarry Glen Ross.

For better or worse, some contractors still specialize in high-pressure sales, though one would expect homeowners to be wary of the consequences of buying before they feel ready. Many, in fact, are. Check out this excerpt from an actual online review for a high-volume replacement contractor.
"The 'free estimate' took nearly 3.5 cumulative hours of my time over the course of 2 visits, employed greasy and predictable sales tactics to first create sticker shock and then slowly lower the price to something almost reasonable (but with the requirement that we had to decide on the spot, instilling a sense of very high pressure)... 

"...The whole thing is just so slimy.  I expect this kind of pitch from someone trying to sell me a timeshare, not someone trying to convince me to trust them to do construction on my house!"
Selling is critical to business success, and it is an honorable profession. But aggressive sales tactics can backfire in myriad ways, including when clients resent making hasty purchases and reputations are tainted by unsavory perceptions. What do you think of high-pressure sales tactics, remodelers? Would the industry be better off if nobody practiced them?

Or would very little get sold -- at least of some types of products?

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Today's Numbers: Homebuyers and Skylights Rising, Jobless Claims, Lobbyists

Home shoppers are on the prowl

From Saturday's Washington Post:
"There is growing evidence, anecdotal and statistical, that there are more shoppers on the prowl in many parts of the country than is customary this time of year, more people requesting "preapproval" letters from mortgage companies, more people visiting Web sites offering homes for sale.... Coldwell Banker, one of the largest brokerages in the country, says traffic to its listings Web site was up 38 percent during the past month.... ZipRealty... reports that its Web site has seen an unusual 33 percent increase in home shoppers in the first half of January compared with December."
Much more here.

Growth in residential skylights in 2012: up 6.5 percent

From the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and The Window & Door Manufacturers Association:
 "Residential skylights are expected to close the year at more than 900,000 units, a growth rate of 6.5 percent over the 2011 volume. New construction skylight activity has proven to be greater than expected at 23.3 percent, while remodeling and replacement skylight activity has fallen behind initial expectations at 2.9 percent growth."
More here.

Decrease in jobless claims, week before last: down by 37,000

Fewer Americans applied for jobless benefits in the week ending January 12 than in five years, according to Labor Department figures released Thursday. From Bloomberg:
"Fewer claims indicate businesses have grown comfortable with their current headcounts, a necessary development before hiring starts to pick up. At the same time, higher payroll taxes that shrink paychecks may prompt companies to hold the line on expanding headcount should Americans cut back on discretionary spending."

dept of curiosity: Number of D.C.-based lobbyists working for biotechnology firm: 74

From the Washington Post:
"Just weeks after pleading guilty in a major federal fraud cause, Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology firm, scored a largely unnoticed coup on Capitol Hill: Lawmakers inserted a paragraph into the 'fiscal cliff' bill that did not mention the company by name but strongly favored one of its drugs."

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Presidential Inaugural Addresses: Video Highlights

It's a big day here in Washington, D.C., and despite the rumors that some remodelers are less than thrilled by Barack Obama's presidency, surely most remodelers -- for the sake of their own businesses and communities -- support his efforts to steer the economy toward greater recovery in the next four years.

In the meantime, let's see how his second inaugural address today stands up to some others from the past 80 or so years. Here's a highlights reel from the Wall Street Journal:

Here's to four more years.

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5 Words That "Just Amped up the Delivery"

"This is how we work."

Here's an upbeat story to kick off the remodeling week. It's especially relevant if you think you're wasting your time with Twitter and other social media tools. Even more so if you're committed to thinking there's little you can do (other than slashing your prices to rock bottom) to get remodeling newbies to trust and hire you.
A Midwestern remodeler reports that he is "very, very close" to signing a $165,000 project of an old home in an upscale, historic neighborhood. The couple has never remodeled, "and they are very nervous," he says. "They called three of our past clients and also requested a walk-through of one of our projects."
During the walk-through (at another old home), the couple asked wisely about the "unforeseen changes" that often arise in old structures. "I saw this as a great opportunity to use these five words" the remodeler says. "I said, 'This is how we work' in the context of anticipating changes, performing thorough pre-construction planning and minimizing changes as much as possible.'"
The couple responded positively to that statement and everything that came with it. "I think it showed conviction," the remodeler muses. "I think just giving someone something to have confidence in gives them comfort. And the five-word statement just amped up the delivery."
So what's the Twitter connection? The couple was referred by an architect with whom the remodeler has been communicating on Twitter. "Score one for a great Twitter lead," the remodeler says. 
And the genesis of the five-word statement? From the talented Kyle Hunt, who provides marketing advice to remodelers. One of his recent emails recommended the "This is how we work" statement thus:
"Make it clear. Make it easy. Limit the options. Have it written out for them. This puts them at ease, makes their choice easier and converts more of your prospects to clients.
"Homeowners crave a PROCESS. Give it to them!"
Sign up for Kyle's email at his website. And follow his marketing tips on Twitter:

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