Trapped at home with her husband and two kids because of COVID-19, Jessica Ennis began to feel as if the walls were closing in around her.
So she painted them.
Just a couple of rooms at first. “But that turned into the interior of the whole house,” said Ennis, who lives in Denver’s Central Park neighborhood. “That turned into, ‘I really hate my countertop, it drives me nuts.’ So maybe new countertops.”
And a new backsplash. And fresh paint on the kitchen cabinets. And new carpet in the basement, hardwood upstairs and on the staircase and a new vanity in the powder room.
She’s not done yet. And she’s not alone.
The pandemic has meant housing insecurity for many people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to pay rent or mortgages. But for some still working and feeling secure about their finances, it has become a time to scratch the itch to make their homes bigger, brighter and more functional.
Homeowners have taken advantage of low refinance rates to pull out home equity and pour that along with buckets of unspent travel and entertainment dollars into home improvement. The number of visits to Lowe’s and Home Depot in the spring and summer have doubled or tripled over last year’s levels, according to foot-traffic analytics platform Placer.ai, as pros and do-it-yourselfers snapped up flooring, lighting, paint and landscaping materials.
“It’s insane,” said Kyndra Massey Georgeson, who owns Denver design firm Georgeson Style with her contractor husband, Larry. “The painters are working triple time, the countertop guys are slammed. Everybody is just so busy.”
Georgeson said the firm is booked until January for design and build, which can range from a comfier couch and a few custom built-ins to “full-blown remodels where people are gutting their whole houses.
“Nobody’s going to Hawaii, nobody’s going to Paris, no one’s taking those big vacations,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘We have all this money from the trip to Europe, so let’s remodel our kitchen.’ It’s hard because you don’t want to turn anybody down, but there’s only so much you can handle.”
Psychologist Sandra Thebaud, who specializes in stress management, speculates that a home remodel could provide stress relief on a couple of levels, starting with distraction.
“They don’t have to face what’s really stressing them if they are focused on changing their home,” she said. “To stave off feeling overwhelmed by so many uncertainties that we’re going through, this gives people a sense of control over their immediate environment. It is very helpful in reducing the stress of feeling confined when the space around you feels more comforting.”
Georgeson said her company has 12 remodeling jobs underway, and she’s fielding as many as five design calls a day.
“Most people want their houses to be beautiful and comfortable, and they’re not as concerned about resale or what anybody else thinks,” Georgeson said. “They want it to be for them and what they love. It’s driven more by emotion than cost.”
At A&D Construction, earnings and the number of subcontractors have doubled, says Leo Perez, who runs the 10-year-old Denver business with her husband, Miguel Velazco. The projects they’re working on have changed as well.
“It used to be, ‘I want my bathroom remodeled,’” she said. “Now that they have the whole family home, the bathroom can wait. It’s, ‘I need an office.’”
Anyone who wants an A&D remodel will have to wait until January as well, Perez said.
Finding a contractor poses one challenge to the remodel-obsessed homeowner. Finding materials could be another. Disruptions to suppliers and distributors have meant long wait times for everything from patio pavers to window treatments.
“There has been an absolutely amazing demand for remodeling with homeowners being home because of the crisis, but the thing that’s throwing a stick in the spokes is the shortage of materials,” said Dena Cordova-Jack, executive vice president of the Mountain States Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association.
The convergence of COVID-19, wildfires in California and Canada, import tariffs, and a slowdown in production, among other factors, has created a perfect storm that has doubled the cost of all kinds of building lumber, she said.
“I don’t want to sound like all gloom and doom,” Cordova-Jack said. “It’s nice to have the demand. The concern is long-term affordability for home building and remodeling. Right now, it’s a lot more expensive than people think it’s going to be.”
Ennis saved money by managing tradespeople herself, but she did a two-hour consult with interior designer Georgeson to confirm her color choices and backsplash tile.
“Now, we have kind of got the bug, and we’re talking about redoing the backyard and starting to get information on architectural drawings to add a mother-in-law suite and attach the garage to the house. We’re kind of going crazy,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Ennis and her husband had been looking for a larger home. But when everything went south, their priorities changed. Community trumped comfort.
“Once the pandemic hit, we realized how great our neighbors are and how important that was — what a big deal it is to have neighbors who all look out for each other in so many different ways,” she said. “We decided to see if we could make this house work, see if we could learn to love it again. Because we did not want to lose that.”
One of those neighbors, Maya Armstrong, was in the middle of a basement remodel when the pandemic hit. Work stopped for a while, then resumed with a vengeance.
It’s finished — for the moment.
“I’m thinking about getting a hot tub in the backyard,” said Armstrong, adding that she finally got a much-anticipated 75-inch television mounted on the basement wall, a substitute for seeing movies in a theaterbuckin.
“I think if we’re going to be staying at home indefinitely, we might as well make the space super-functional and enjoyable,” she said. “I never envisioned being in my home this much.”