Pandemic home renovations keep contractors busy, help retailers recover

There's been boom in home renovations during the COVID-19 pandemic as homeowners use the time to remodel and upgrade their living spaces as they spend more time working and learning at home.

Contractors inundated with calls and emails

From professional contractors to DIY-ers, the pandemic has meant a boom in home renovations. Demand for materials has meant a sharp bounce back for some retailers. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

It could be from money saved working from home or redirected from a cancelled big vacation, but during this pandemic people are investing in the place where they are spending most of their time. 

That means that along with redoing kitchens, bathrooms and basements, Kirk Daly of Daly Renovations has had to become really good at juggling. He's got three jobs on the go and has had a lot of interested homeowners.

"It was just such an influx of calls, e-mails, inundated with things to do right in and around the house," he said.

It seems with so many out of work -- one bright spot -- is that those who are still bringing in a paycheck are spending on their homes.

"So, they're trying to create a home office -- utilize that space in the basement or even just the bathrooms are overused... a lot of people are taking the time and refinancing just so they can make their homes as comfortable as possible," said Daly.

Kirk Daly of Daly Renovations says he’s had a surge in calls for estimates since the pandemic. Homeowners who are not commuting to work and have put off big vacations are investing in the place they are spending most of their time. (Philip Lee-shanok/CBC)

Sales of home improvement and outdoor entertainment goods increased dramatically as stores noticed increased traffic from professional contractors to Do-It-Yourselfers.

Since the shutdown in March brought the economy to a standstill -- the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) has seen this sector rebound faster than others.

"You're looking at about $3.5 billion in sales in the month of June -- that's the latest figure from StatsCan. Not only higher than it was in May but it's actually higher than it was in June last year -- so you've actually seen growth over the comparable month pre-COVID," said Karl Littler, Senior Vice-President of Public Affairs for the RCC.

People waiting to get into the Home Depot at Gerrard Square. The chain reported a 25% increase in sales once they reopened after COVID-19 led to a mandatory retail store shutdown. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

The unexpected reno boom caught the lumber industry by surprise.

"There have actually been some shortages that popped up periodically. So, for example, there's been trouble sourcing pressure treated wood; there's been trouble with respect to getting cedar," said Littler.

While he says retailers are working to resolve supply chain issues, home improvement stores are reporting better bottom lines.

Lowe's Canada reported sales were up by more than 20 per cent... while Home Depot's U.S. parent company, which doesn't break out its Canadian figures, were up 25 per cent.

RBC Capital Markets researchers found that the sales momentum in August is "materially consistent" with July (high 20 per cent range) and concludes that the "recovery in home improvement spending is likely to be a long-tailed cycle, which should continue to benefit the sector."

Empty lumber shelves in a Waterloo, Ont. home improvement store. Pressure treated lumber used for decking and fences is difficult to find right now. (Submitted by Matt Morris )

Many stores, including Canadian Tire are looking to add staff and so is Daly Renovations.

"We're looking at bringing on someone who can manage a site and be able to oversee certain things while we are taking care of other projects because we can only be in one place at a time," said Daly.

The Retail Council of Canada expects the trend to be sustainable -- helped by low interest rates and Canadians working from home for the rest of the year and beyond.

Karl Littler, Senior Vice-President of Public Affairs for the Retail Council of Canada, says people who saved money while working from home may want to improve their living spaces, since it's where they are spending the majority of their time. (CBC)

One area that doesn't reflect the trend is building permits. The City of Toronto reports applications for residential renovations and additions from Mar. 17 to Aug. 27 were down this year for the same period last year: 3,080 from 3,664.

But the city says that may not be fully reflective of all residential construction or renovation work being done, because not all home renovation projects require a building permit. 

For example, replacing windows, roofing, interior finishes, minor repairs as well as some cosmetic kitchen and bathroom alterations (that don't include structural alterations or plumbing fixtures installed in new locations), do not require a permit.

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Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.