Goodbye, Old Paint

There’s nothing like sheltering in place to make a person want to finally add that porch and change those cabinets.

It’s not particularly revolutionary to assert that the pandemic-fueled real estate boom has contributed mightily to a corresponding construction and renovation craze across the Island, leaving general contractors, tradespeople, lumberyards, and others in this chain scrambling to meet new and expanding demands. What was once a predictable rush to meet Memorial Day or July Fourth completion dates has become a steady, year-round set of deadlines for those in the trades. And, it should be noted, all those endless, repetitive days and nights in quarantine have turned many otherwise hands-off, couch-potato types into DIY aficionados. Clearly, it wasn’t all about baking the perfect sourdough loaf for everyone.

At Edgartown Hardware, owner John Montes Jr. recalled that in addition to the stress of fully supplying his mainstay paint contractors in the midst of material shortages, homeowners in this year of Covid created a whole new level of merchandise demands that were often tough to fulfill. “We ran out of Ball jars,” he said, because everyone was canning. Grills flew out the door, along with birdseed, vegetable seeds, and paint cans and brushes. It became so difficult to keep up with demands for contractor trash bags that he began to buy them by the pallet.

“Benjamin Moore had a banner year,” Montes added, “and it was a shock to us how much paint we were selling to homeowners.” Islanders, it seems, want the more expensive paint grades, so when he ordered eighty quarts of a particular paint that had been difficult to stock, the Benjamin Moore rep called to make sure he hadn’t meant to order just eight quarts.

It was, in the end, a year of extremes. In May of 2020, Montes worried about losing his business. Paint contractors are the bread and butter of his Edgartown and Vineyard Haven stores. Covid restrictions first stopped construction altogether, then slowly revived it in stages. Yet by June, he said, “we were right back in the swing of things. What looked like a six-figure downturn turned around and we ended up making that up and then some. And this year is starting off busier than last year.”

For Robert “Spike” Smith of Walter Smith Plumbing and Heating, seasonal clients settled in for a full year, increasing the service business by a good 20 percent. As for construction or renovation, it went from warm and fuzzy in those first months to the familiar, “What about me?”

“I think, originally, most clients understood that so much of it was out of our hands,” Smith said. “But as we got further into it, everyone’s individual schedule became the only thing that mattered. We’ve gotten way past the time when everyone felt badly for everyone else.”

General contractor Esteban Aranzabe, who owns and operates Patagonia Restorations, said bluntly, “It’s been crazy.” First, he said, everyone is shorthanded, so workers get cold calls from other contractors offering more pay on the spot. And a week doesn’t go by without a client revising plans, like, say, a request for a simple outdoor shower that morphs into that shower plus a new kitchen and how about a garage?

As for the volume of work and how quickly it has mushroomed, Aranzabe points to a pair of up-Island college professors. Initially, the couple wanted just a sixteen-by-twenty-five-foot deck. Over time that turned into “a new addition, a new kitchen, a new bath, and two offices because they might stay here year-round.” What began as a $25,000 job of a few weeks eventually became a $400,000 months-long project.

There’s a theme here. Shawn Chapps of Chapco Design said, “People aren’t flinching at the prices. They don’t care. Everyone seems to want everything, and they want it now.”

At E.C. Cottle Inc.’s lumberyard in West Tisbury, Nick Bakas, who handles sales with both contractors and homeowners, said his days have been “nonstop” with supply-side delays or closures throwing a regular wrench into many an ETA.

“Everyone is crunched,” he said. “Some of the bigger contractors are saying they’re booked three years out. And the smaller guys are running from job to job changing windows or doors and doing upgrades because people are in their homes and noticing things.”

Not surprisingly, supply demands and reduced manufacturing have led to price hikes, as much as 20 to 25 percent from a year ago and even higher on some building materials. Bakas said that at various times he’s run out of three-inch screws and basic house framing elements. PVC products became impossible to find at one point. And when manufacturers’ reps told him that raw aluminum was getting hard to source, he knew that would create a sharp decline in available hardware.

“It’s tough because I can’t always pinpoint a delivery date,” he said. “I can get a rough date, but lots of times certain products are already back ordered, so we get pushed back. And that’s difficult because all these jobs are on a timeline.

“It used to be contractors were aiming for July Fourth or Labor Day,” Bakas added. “Now those completion dates are spread throughout the year and the Covid regulations on job sites have stretched out time frames, making it difficult to give homeowners a solid time frame.”

Priscilla Tucker of French Accent, a kitchen and bath design center in Vineyard Haven, has spent the year educating her clients on extended lead times. Cabinets that took six to eight weeks to arrive now take eleven to twelve weeks. And appliances, which pre-Covid were on site within a couple of weeks, are now taking three to four months. Still, like others whose business depends on a robust construction scene, Tucker has enjoyed a very solid pandemic year and expects the volume to continue.

Has it ever been this nuts? Aranzabe said not in his fifteen years in construction. “This is insane,” he said, “and the insane part is that it is so unpredictable. Maybe tomorrow there won’t be any plywood or two-by-fours.” Or, he added, a valued worker might lose his housing come summer, move to the Cape, and never come back.

On this Island, it somehow always gets back to housing.