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How Covid changed home renovations – and what you need to know if you’re starting one

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You waited out the worst of the pandemic-driven lead time crisis and skyrocketing lumber costs, and now you’re eager to jumpstart your own project. Here’s what you need to know.


1. Changes are inevitable.

painter comes on the ladder

First and foremost, hire a team you trust. (Ignoring your misgivings and hoping for the best is the wrong move.) Beyond that, Narvaez says an open mind and a bit of flexibility are the best client attributes of a successful project today. “When the customer is very rigid about the plan, that’s when we have a lot of problems,” she says. How flexible do you need to be? Narvaez says she hopes her clients remain open to moving everything from vendors to layouts to timelines.

“Let’s say we planned 18-inch cabinets, but they’re out of stock—let’s try 15-inch or 12-inch cabinets instead, if they’re available. It might change things a bit on that wall of cabinets, but that able to be done.” Most of all, have realistic expectations. These days, that means expecting delays. “Understand that it’s just as frustrating for us when things are delayed,” adds Nashville entrepreneur Elizabeth Scruggs. “If we has a job that goes over schedule, it will push all 10 or 20 of our jobs off schedule. We work 10 times as hard on the backend that homeowners can’t see to keep everything running.”

2. Benefits are booked out.

In-demand professionals are booked out at least three months before they can even start your project – and then the clock starts again while you wait for your orders. Across the country, contractors reported that they are booked solid for six months to a year out — and that customers should be wary of anyone who is it not booked up, even in markets that may not appear to be booming. When you first connect with a professional, you probably don’t want to rush right into the cutting edge. “I usually start talking to a client 6 months before they want to start,” says Washington, DC-based contractor Gabriela Narvaez, who specializes in historic home conversions that add function but not square footage. Gilchrist agrees: “When the homeowners get the money, they want the job to start tomorrow, but it doesn’t work that way. “I wish they would reach out while they are think about the project.”

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house being renovated

3. Ambition wins the bid.

Lots of homeowners are going all out on their renovations — and with mortgage rates rising, analysts expect more people to be inclined to invest in their current home rather than trade up, meaning the renovation boom (and busy professionals) is likely here to stay. Contractors report that in addition to getting big, their clients are increasingly getting super personal with the details of their homes. (One recently finished building a hidden wine room.) What does that mean to you? Because of the demand, contractors are now more selective about which projects they take on – choosing the jobs that are most interesting and fulfilling rather than saying yes to everything. If you have a sufficient budget, it can make it easier to find your favorite pro if you are pursuing the most ambitious version of your project.

4. The increase is here to stay.

builders putting together a cabinet

Lots of homeowners are going all out on their renovations, and with mortgage rates rising, analysts estimate that more people will be inclined to invest in their current home rather than trade up. The busy professionals aren’t going to break free anytime soon.


timing is everything

5. There is no advantage in waiting.

Only you know your finances, but contractors universally said that if you’ve been thinking about jumping into a renovation but were scared off by the pandemic-related shifts, now is probably the time to dive in. “It might not be the best time to buy a house because interest rates are high, but if you have a HELOC and some extra cash, I would suggest renovating now,” says Narvaez.

6. There is a waiting list.

The work itself probably won’t take much longer than it used to before Covid, but you’ll have a lot more to wait before you start – and that’s what’s still hard to pin down or predict. Lead times are slowly shrinking, but you’ll want to make important decisions on big-ticket items early so you can order components like windows, masonry, appliances, and cabinets, all of which take longer than they used to. For the most part, today’s market is not the nightmare it was a year ago. One contractor cited cabinets that used to take 5 to 8 weeks (but increased to 25 weeks or more during Covid) as a perfect example – it now reliably arrives within 9 to 12 weeks, just as the manufacturer expected.

builders do roofing

7. Delays still occur.

Delays aren’t always caused by what you’d think either – even if most materials are in, a seemingly minor missing piece can hold up construction for weeks. That’s exactly what happened to Washington, DC contractor, designer, and realtor Keisha Gilchrist on a recent job: “The material for the floors arrived on Friday as scheduled, but the thresholds and stair nosings didn’t arrive until seven days later, delaying the project more than one week.”

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To save clients money (and to maximize time with in-demand subcontractors), professionals also often decide to wait until all materials are in and ready before breaking ground or starting demolition, meaning the team can work as smoothly and continuously as possible once the project is underway. While it may seem frustrating, it’s better than tearing out your bathroom, getting halfway done, realizing something isn’t in yet—and then having to get back in line to get on a handyman’s schedule. In addition, there is also a lot more waiting in the planning phase, whether you are waiting for a contractor or a crew to become available.

8. But the delivery times are normalised.

paint paint wall

The work itself probably won’t take much longer than it used to before Covid, but you’ll have a lot more to wait before you start – and that’s what’s still hard to pin down or predict. Lead times are slowly shrinking, but you’ll want to make important decisions on big-ticket items early so you can order components like windows, masonry, appliances, and cabinets, all of which take longer than they used to. For the most part, today’s market is not the nightmare it was a year ago. One contractor cited cabinets that used to take 5 to 8 weeks (but increased to 25 weeks or more during Covid) as a perfect example – it now reliably arrives within 9 to 12 weeks, just as the manufacturer expected.


what about the cost

9. Some material costs are stable.

According to the NAHB, “Building material prices are up 33 percent since the start of the pandemic.” But many, including concrete blocks and bricks, appear to have stabilized.

10. But it is not timber.

Lumber costs are still higher than in 2020, but not as bad as the worst pandemic rates, which rose to an all-time high in May 2021, then rose again in early 2022. (It got so bad that one contractor reportedly saw a builder framing homes with cabinet-grade wood because construction-grade plywood was so expensive.) Costs have come down since then, but contractors estimate that lumber alone will still cost 20 to 30 percent more than in 2019.


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Main photo by Kaitlin Petersen

Contributing author

Kaitlin is the editor-in-chief of Business of Home and the host of the podcast Trade stories. She has been writing about style and design for more than a decade, and her work has appeared in Elle Interior, Beautiful house, Metropolitan Home and Porchas well as Chicago, Texas Monthly, Time Out New Yorkand the international editions of Vanity Fair and Vogue. In her spare time, she kayaks on the Hudson River, gardens on her Brooklyn patio, and searches Zillow for 19th century farmhouses to decorate in her head.