Current Housing Market Solution: Renovate, Renovate, Renovate

DIY house projects on the raiseWe know that the Great Recession and housing market collapse has made many homeowners very nervous. But it has also made them very practical. New statistics reveal that instead of seeking bigger, more expensive houses, homeowners are staying put, making the ones they have look nicer and more energy efficient, and doing it themselves. This can be gleaned from the numbers: Residential architecture inquiries and billings are still down, and profits at Home Depot and Lowe's are rebounding.

Yes, we're nesting again and feathering our nests with modest, energy-efficient improvements -- from LED lighting to water saving toilets -- rather than opting for a Great Room and adding steam showers or simply moving into that coveted McMansion, according to the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA index, based on a percentage of respondents reporting increasing interest minus those reporting decreasing, shows that inquiries to residential architects for new projects in the fourth-quarter of 2009 at a net 45 percent (down from 46 in Q3) and billings at 32 percent (down from 38), "indicating that the housing market is not yet entering a full recovery phase," the AIA says.

While we're still not asking architects to design us a "move up" house (minus 31 percent on the index) or a vacation home (minus 71 percent), there's been an uptick in requests to architects about remodeling and renovations, focusing on kitchen and bath upgrades. And not just any old features and fixtures: we want functional stuff that saves energy and cuts utility bills, like renewable flooring materials and counter tops, and pantries to store all those canned goods.

Yes, it seems that when it comes to home improvements in the age of economic gloom it's out with the heated towel rack and in with a dedicated place to put all our recyclables.

Besides bigger pantries and a recycling center, we want computer charging stations in the kitchen and drinking water filtration systems, as well as an integrated kitchen-family space. For the bath, door-less showers and radiant floor heating are the most popular requests, the AIA survey says.

Not surprisingly, home improvers and remodelers are giving DIY retailers a boost. Profit at Home Depot reached $342 million in the latest quarter, compared to a $54 million loss a year ago. Lowe's profit was up to $205 million from $162 million the last time around. Customers were buying paint, flooring and kitchen and bath supplies -- and, we imagine, supplying most of the sweat equity.

All this offers a glimmer of hope for a housing market recovery, the AIA suggests, noting that an increase in remodeling jobs and alterations to existing homes are usually the bedrock of a broader improvement.

But that might be a long time off. The organization's overall (rather than just residential) architectural billings survey -- a leading indicator of construction activity -- showed another steep drop in activity in January from the month before, as the industry entered its third year of "negative conditions."

So let's keep scraping and repainting and flushing less and rejigging the kitchen and bath faucets with low flow everything, because green is good whether we're selling or not.
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