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Building suppliers see pandemic boom

SCOTT FLYNN IS manager at rk Miles, a building materials supplier in Middlebury that has seen an uptick in paint and interior projects beginning last summer and then through the fall and winter as homeowners have spent more time in their abodes. The hot real estate market has also driven up sales, too, according to Flynn’s boss, company owner Joe Miles, and Goodro Lumber Co. co-owner Mark Thomas.

Everybody is sitting around and saying, jeez, I haven’t painted this room in 10 years. We’ve sold a lot of paint.
— Mark Thomas of Goodro Lumber Co.

ADDISON COUNTY — With a boost from strong real estate sales and homeowners motivated to improve their nests after spending more time than usual in them, the local construction sector has done well overall in the past year, according to owners of the county’s largest building supply stores.
Both do-it-yourself (DIY) customers and professional contractors have created steady business for rk Miles on Exchange Street in Middlebury and Goodro Lumber Co. on East Main Street in East Middlebury, officials of those firms said. 
Projects have ranged from deck expansion to new homes, according to rk Miles owner Joe Miles. Activity sparked as soon as warm weather hit in 2020.
“Last spring there was an explosion of homeowner interest in what I’ll call outdoor living product lines,” Miles said.
That meant in rk Miles’ Manchester store grills and outdoor furniture were moving quickly, he said. In Addison County, Miles said products to support “any project that was outdoor related” sold fast, such as deck-building, repair or enhancement; picnic benches; raised garden beds; and fencing.
With the exception of April and May, when state restrictions essentially banned in-store sales, “it remained pretty busy” for outdoor products throughout the warm-weather months, Miles said. He expects more of the same this year.
Goodro co-owner Mark Thomas saw the same thing.
“During the good weather people were moving outside a lot more. There was a lot more decking going on, their outdoor living space, as they call it, because they couldn’t go anywhere else,” Thomas said.
The result was pressure-treated lumber was in short supply for a while, and some orders for synthetic decking took several weeks to fulfill.
“There were a few shortages, which seem to be getting better,” Thomas said.
Miles acknowledged that increased demand and stress on the supply chain have pushed prices of building materials higher, especially wood products and steel. He said rk Miles has just sent out a letter to its regular customers and contractors explaining the issues.
“Things are very expensive at this time. I anticipate prices will come down at some point, hopefully through the summer,” Miles said. “There have been a lot of supply constraints … When everybody wants 5% more, it pretty much blew the whole thing up.”
While the DIY portion of both businesses does not provide a large portion of their bottom lines, both owners said it picked up as 2020 went on and is still strong.
“There was a pretty good uptick in paint and interior projects, for sure, people trying to fix up a home office, trying to do improvements while they were home,” Miles said. “There was quite a bit of that right through the fall into the winter.”
As well as sales of paint, homeowners spent a lot on finish boards, molding and even drywall, Miles said.
Thomas pointed to the same trend: Many homeowners, at least those who weren’t struggling financially, devoted disposable income to their properties instead of vacations.
“The big thing is everybody is sitting around and saying, jeez, I haven’t painted this room in 10 years,” Thomas said. “We’ve sold a lot of paint. We’ve sold a lot of small hardware. Some of the more venturesome have said, ‘I want to move a door over there,’ or ‘I want … a more open concept.’”
Still, the bulk of their businesses remains supplying contractors. And Miles said builders are doing well.
“We’re very focused on the building trades,” he said, adding, “And all the contractors were busy. They’re all busy.”

STRONG REAL ESTATE SALES
Miles said nothing much happened in April and May, when the state imposed restrictions on all but businesses deemed essential, but those months were “followed by an extremely busy summer.”
Strong home sales played a role in keeping builders on jobsites and making regular visits to suppliers’ parking lots.
As Thomas put it, “If you talk to the Realtors I’m sure they’ll tell you the real estate market is very hot around here.”
And Miles explained, “When somebody buys a property they generally do something. They do a little patch or repair, or something like that.”
That strong demand for homes has pushed up values of existing homes, Miles said. He believes those who could afford it were also willing to invest more in their homes because of that higher value in a sellers’ market, as well as being more motivated to improve their homes because they were spending more time in them.
“All of a sudden the perceived value of your home just went up. So you’re more willing to do home improvement,” he said.
On top of that, Thomas said new homes are going up due to the limited availability of existing inventory, on top of the usual work contractors handle in the good weather.
“It’s pretty even across the spectrum,” he said. “There’s a lot of new homes going in. There’s a lot of renovation going on.”
Basically, contractors have more work than they can handle, Thomas said.
“Everyone is saying, ‘I wish I could find more help,’” he said. “There’s more demand than there are people to service it at this time.”
The only downside, Miles said, is that not all sectors are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic. He lamented a “lopsided economy,” and hopes things can start turning around for all.
“At the same time you’ve got all these restaurants and hospitality people who are having a terrible time,” Miles said. “We’ve just got to get through this damn thing … Hopefully they’ll share in some of the newfound freedom people will have in dining and going out and such.”

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