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Home Improvement

Age of Automation

The design trend known broadly as home automation comes in many forms, from a command to Amazon’s Alexa to turn off the lights to a smartphone app that controls door locks and room temperature — and a dozen other functions — from across the country. This technology is attractive, says one local expert, because it solves problems in a very individualized way — and people like technology that makes their lives easier.

When people think of home automation, what comes to mind? Heat controls and security cameras, for sure. Maybe the TV and music, or door locks, or window blinds.

Bill Laplante also thinks of his shower.

“I have a digital control panel in my shower,” said the president of Laplante Construction in East Longmeadow, noting that he inputs a ‘user profile’ that gives him the exact temperature and flow he wants. “My wife has a different profile, so hers is four or five degrees cooler, and a different shower head. A lot of this stuff is pretty cool.”

It’s stuff that’s becoming more common in the modern home, as the rise of what’s known as the ‘Internet of things’ has people connecting any number of household functions to the Internet and controlling them from smartphone apps.

“Take lighting systems. We changed our bulbs, and now the lights are controlled by cell phone,” Laplante told BusinessWest. “I’ve gotten pretty lazy with the technology — instead of getting up to turn on the lights, I just grab my phone.”

But he’s not just enjoying smart-home technology at his own house; he’s building homes for customers who increasingly demand such features themselves. He works with EPOS Systems in West Springfield — a company whose motto is “Your future home. Today.” — on whole-home automation systems that run off one app, known as Control4. But people can take an a la carte approach as well.

Bill Laplante says homeowners have many options when it comes to automation, but many today are opting for full-home systems that run off a single app.

“I see a combination of both. Some people, usually in the higher-end homes, will want a whole-house smarthome system that’s controlled by one app and can do multiple things with lighting, television, heat, cameras, all of that stored on one app,” he explained. “And then there are other people who want less expensive options, who have multiple apps that do different things, but it’s not necessarily controlled by one central program.”

The uses for such a system are myriad.

“When you’re away for vacation and you forgot to turn your heat down, you can do it remotely. Even the door locks — you can send a code from your phone to unlock the door for someone cleaning the house or someone coming over to watch your kids,” Laplante said. “Control4 is really a home-management system, a technology-management system. You can create lighting scenes, you can control television, music, security, garage-door cameras — virtually everything that could link together, you can link through this central system.”

The popularity of so-called ‘smart homes’ is only expected to increase as more people experience it and costs continue to drop. According to Forbes, the value of the smart-home device market will grow from $55 billion in 2016 to $174 billion by 2025.

Dan Crouss says home automation is about solving problems — and quality of life.

Dan Crouss, owner of EPOS, said homeowners have many points of entry to choose from.

“Sometimes you start out small, but then we tie in the music and the TVs and all that stuff into one app. You kind of piecemeal it as you go — start small and work your way up over the years. Some people do it all at once when they build their house, but usually it’s small increments.”

And it’s not as foreign a concept as some people may think, he added.

“Everyone’s got some type of automation from their phone, even if it’s just Siri or Alexa controlling the lights. What we do is take it a step further, put it into one app instead of having 15 apps. Everybody’s got a little bit, but we’re able to tie it all into one interface.”

Problem Solvers

EPOS was launched in 2007, the merger between two companies, Perfect Sound and Olympic Electric. Its services have evolved considerably since then, both because technology is always advancing and because people are attracted to products that make their lives easier, Crouss said.

“Home automation can start out as a simple Alexa that turns on lights. Then door locks and heat are two things people usually do. Being able to unlock your door for somebody when you’re not home is a big deal. And with heat, I can save a lot of money. I get home at random times because of my job, so, if I’m getting home at 5:30, I can log on at 4 and pump up the heat a little bit, so when I get home, it’s nice and warm, but I saved a lot of money during the day.”

Then homeowners may add options from there, he added, from window shades — which can be adjusted or programmed to bring some extra sunlight into the house during the winter or keep it darker and cooler in the summer — to strategically placed cameras, both for outdoor security and to monitor the interior of a home when residents are away for the winter.

“Sometimes you start out small, but then we tie in the music and the TVs and all that stuff into one app. You kind of piecemeal it as you go — start small and work your way up over the years. Some people do it all at once when they build their house, but usually it’s small increments.”

“You can get a notification on your phone if you have movement at the front door,” Laplante said. “And you can pull up the camera view and pull up the audio and say, ‘can I help you?’ and do it all remotely. You can be on vacation and you’re answering your door, essentially. There are all types of things like that that are pretty cool, and most manufacturers now are incorporating things like this into their own apps and making everything as seamless as possible.”

As he noted earlier, many people opt for buying individual devices, such as one that manages the garage door.

“When your car pulls into the driveway, it will automatically open the garage door rather than actually pushing a button. You can also let somebody in your garage door remotely with your app. So you have individual products like this, with their own apps, which create the, quote-unquote, ‘smart home,’ or you can have a central control system that controls all of the various components of the house.”

The whole-house system can be preset for any number of situations, from delivering the exact heating and lighting arrangement upon waking up in the morning to creating a variety of ‘lighting scenes’ in the kitchen, such as for cooking, dining, or hosting a party — or telling the Christmas tree when to turn on and off every day.

“Basically, what home automation does is solve people’s problems, and everybody’s got different ones to solve,” Crouss said. “When my kids were growing up, they’d get off the bus and would put in their [front door] code, and I would get a text to let me know my daughter was off the bus. Or let’s say cleaners come to your house, who bill by the hour. There’s a time stamp when they put in the code and a time stamp when they lock the door.”

As another example, “people with oil tanks have smart sensors that automatically e-mail you when the tank is getting low, or e-mail people who deliver the oil. A lot of people with vacation homes show up, and the oil is way down. This is a way to avoid that problem.”

Price and Promise

In Forbes, Bernard Marr, a futurist, author, and business and technology advisor, recently noted a few developments on the horizon when it comes to smart homes. One is increasing standardization, as manufacturers of smart-home devices are increasingly ensuring their products and services will work on platforms provided by Amazon, Google, Samsung, and Apple to capture the broadest customer base.

He also sees smart homes actually becoming smarter over time as they make use of machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, and other technologies that are capable of making decisions and learning. Smart thermostat systems from Nest and Honeywell already use machine learning to adapt their behavior to the inhabitants of a house, based on observing and then replicating their habits, and that trend should accelerate to other devices as well.

Finally, the global rollout of 5G, as well as improved wi-fi technology, mean smart-home devices will be linked by faster, more powerful networks, meaning better access to data and processing resources in the cloud.

“The smart-home technology has come way, way down in price,” Laplante said, especially when it comes to buying multiple devices. “The Control4 system is nice because everything runs through one app. But people have multiple apps on their phones for multiple things anyway.

“There are many different components,” he added. “The cost depends on how much you bring into the system. The big advantage to having a one-hub system is that everything runs through that system, so you’re going to one app.”

EPOS continues to introduce new services, Crouss said, like ‘smart outlets’ that can reboot cable or Internet if it goes down, rather than having to deal with physical plugs and wires. In fact, those devices can now send a signal on their own and be rebooted automatically when a problem is detected.

“Most of my customers want this technology, want to be able to do those things,” Laplante said. “Especially when you’re going away, you want to be able to control things, you want to keep an eye on the house. If you go away for the winter, you want to be in contact with your home, to monitor the temperature and see if there are any issues.”

Not to mention that much of this technology — whether it’s changing the music coming out of the ceiling speakers or stepping into a perfect shower — is just, well, fun.

“It’s something the average person today is expecting — especially the younger generations,” he said. “They grew up with technology, and they expect it. And it is kind of neat.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement Uncategorized

Advice — on the House

Andrew Crane holds up a prototype of one of the reusable bags attendees will receive at the 2020 Home and Garden Show.

By Mark Morris

Sometimes the online approach isn’t the most efficient way to tackle a project.

“If you’re looking to hire a landscaper, for example, you could look all over the internet and be dissatisfied,” said Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts (HBRAWM).

Instead, he suggests conducting a search at the Western Mass Home and Garden Show, where consumers can speak directly with local landscapers and myriad other professionals.

Crane’s organization sponsors the annual event, which is now in its 66th year. Held at the beginning of spring, this year’s edition is scheduled for March 26-29 at the Eastern States Exposition grounds in West Springfield.

Originally, the event served as a venue for tradesmen in the association to familiarize each other with their craft. Over time, the show evolved, putting more emphasis on consumers, and has grown to the point where more than 350 exhibitors reserve space every year.

Exhibitors at the show can help consumers with everything from replacing a faucet to building an entire home — and everything in between. Innovations in building products, as well as home-related services such as Realtors and insurance agents, all have a presence at the home show.

Todd Hickman, Steve Sgroi, and John Collins will use the show to introduce a new segment of their business, Home Service Electrical.

Regarding that landscaper search, at press time, four landscapers had reserved booths at this year’s home show. For landscape projects that involve ‘hardscape’ (incorporating stone work into a landscape design), 14 different vendors of this specialty have signed on.

BusinessWest caught up with several different exhibitors to this year’s show, representing a wide range of industries. Their home-show experience varies from nearly two decades to a couple of first-time exhibitors, but they all share an enthusiasm about the opportunity to connect with people during the event.

Room to Grow

Stuart Fearn, president of Safeco Foam Insulation, marks his 17th home show this year. “Since day one, the home show has proven to be a home run for my business,” he said, adding that he sees his main job at the show as educating people about spray-foam insulation, and it’s a worthwhile effort.

“We get a lot of business and awareness from the home show,” he noted. “It helps people know we exist, and we will often get calls up to six to nine months after the show when they need insulation.”

For nearly two decades now, remodeling has remained a strong trend in home projects. Whether someone is updating their current home or purchasing an older home to modernize, Crane said demand remains strong for windows, siding, and many other products that will fit into existing homes.

Scott Fleury, business development director for Kelly-Fradet Lumber in East Longmeadow, sees the home show as an opportunity to put consumers in touch with the best people for their remodeling projects. The current president of HBRAWM, Fleury has been a part of the home show for 10 years. Kelly-Fradet often displays kitchen, bath, and outdoor deck products it sells primarily through contractors.

Painters Christopher Grenier and Jillian Forcier inspect the results of their recent work in a Northampton home.

“Often a homeowner will come to our booth with a project, and we are able to walk them right to a contractor who is also at the show,” he said. “On the flip side, contractors will bring people to our booth to show them the products we carry that apply to their project.”

Lori Loughlin, showroom manager for Frank Webb Home in Springfield, has taken part in the show for the past five years. Loughlin, vice chair of the organizing committee for the event, said her company sees an almost immediate return on its investment.

“Initially we see a big spike in sales right after the home show,” she said adding that the impact of the event often continues throughout the year. “People will come in as late as Christmas time and tell me they saw us at the home show.”

Christopher Grenier, owner of Grenier Painting and Finishing, reserved a booth at the home show last year for the first time. He enjoyed the experience so much, he is now on the event’s organizing committee.

Grenier noted that customers who need painting services often ask him for referrals about flooring, plumbing, and other services. He gladly recommends other members of the association to help customers find the right person for the job.

“I’ve recommended other painters when a customer needs someone who specializes in painting cabinets, for example,” he said. “We’re not in competition; it’s more of a camaraderie.”

One of the key benefits he sees to having a booth at the show is the ability to give people individual attention for their projects.

“When I’m asked why people should go to the home show, my response is, you’re going to find local people you can trust,” he noted.

Loughlin agreed and said that, because people can touch the products in her company’s booth, it helps them recognize quality kitchen and bath fixtures. When products like these are researched and then bought online, there’s no tactile experience, and service after the purchase is often lacking.

“Our customers know they can call us if there is ever a problem,” she said.
“There’s no sending things in the mail; we’ll just take care of it right here.”

As in past years, most booths will be located in the Better Living Center and the adjacent Young Building. New this year, the space between the two buildings will be used as a “contractor’s village” for products that exhibit better outside.

Scott Fleury helps Kelly-Fradet Lumber get all decked out for the show.

PV Squared Solar, a residential solar-energy installer, will forego the traditional booth setup indoors and will instead set up a solar-powered trailer in the contractor’s village to run electrical devices off the grid.

Anna Mannello, marketing coordinator for PV Squared, said that, as a first-time exhibitor, the home show presents a great way to connect with people in the community.

“PV Squared Solar is based in Greenfield, so we’ve done most of our business in Franklin and Hampshire counties,” she said. “While we’ve done a few installations in Hampden County, this will be an opportunity to increase our exposure to lots of new people.”

Mannello hasn’t yet finalized what appliances they plan to demonstrate, but during the four days of the show, attendees will be able to connect to PV Squared’s trailer to charge their phones using solar power.

It’s one thing to be a first-time exhibitor, and it’s quite something else to launch a new business at the home show. That’s how Todd Hickman, president of Hickman and Sgroi Electric, is approaching his inaugural exhibit.

While his company is an established residential, commercial, and industrial contractor, he and his partner, Steve Sgroi, are introducing Home Service Electrical, a membership-based, comprehensive approach to homeowner electrical needs. Instead of waiting for an emergency, Hickman said the service starts with a full inspection of the home’s electrical system to prevent familiar problems, such as losing power while cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

When a service call is needed, a professional technician in a fully stocked van will be expected to solve most problems in one visit. Each service has a standard price, so the consumer knows upfront what the job will cost. The home show represents an opportunity to introduce this different concept for electrical service.

“We’re creating a brand, so it’s important to educate the public on who we are, the image we present, and to assure people that we plan to be here for generations to come,” Hickman said.

Sgroi, vice president of Hickman and Sgroi, said their goal for the home show is simple, and it’s one shared by many, on one level or another.

“We hope to schedule inspections and grow the business until we are overwhelmed,” he said, while Hickman quickly added, if that happens, the business will gladly expand to meet the demand.

The Finish Line

For many years, HBRAWM provided plastic bags for show attendees to collect information from exhibitors. Crane proudly noted that the plastic bags are gone and have been replaced this year with reusable cloth bags, similar to those found in supermarkets.

“It’s one small way our members can be part of the solution to improving our environment,” he said. The bag will include a map showing all booth locations and a guide with contact information on all the HBRWM members.

“If you have a specific project, the map and guide will help you navigate the show to get the information you need,” Crane said. “If you don’t have any projects and you want a social experience, then you can just walk around, and you’ll have a great time.”

He concluded that other home shows have come and gone in the area, but ‘the original’ home show is here to stay. “After 66 years, it’s now a piece of Western Mass. history.”

The Western Mass Home and Garden show will be open Thursday and Friday, March 26-27, from 1 to 9 p.m.; Saturday, March 28, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, March 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $10 for adults. Children under 12 are admitted free. Veterans and active military with ID are admitted free on Thursday only. Discount coupons for every day of the show are available at www.westernmasshomeshow.com.

Home Improvement

Green-building Tax Breaks

By Lisa White, CPA, CJ Aberin, CCSP, and Brandon Val Verde, CEPE

On Dec. 20, 2019, a pair of tax provisions, Sections §45L and §179D, made their way into the government’s year-end spending package. These often-overlooked incentives provide a lucrative tax-saving strategy for the real-estate industry.

Not only were the 45L credit and 179D deduction extended through 2020, but the benefits can also be retroactively claimed if missed on prior tax returns. Real-estate developers, builders, and architects that may be unfamiliar with the provisions should take a closer look to avoid a missed opportunity.

45L: Tax Credit for Residential Real Estate

The 45L credit is a federal incentive worth up to $2,000 per qualified unit and is designed to reward homebuilders and multi-family developers of apartments, condos, or production homes. To qualify, a dwelling unit must provide a level of heating and cooling energy consumption that is 50% less than the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) Standards.

Of this 50% reduction, a minimum of 10% must come from the building envelope. All residential developments and apartment buildings completed within the last four years are worth assessing for potential 45L tax credits. Eligible construction also includes substantial reconstruction and rehabilitation. The credit is available in all 50 states; however, developments must be three stories or less above grade in height.

Here’s an example of now the credit works:

A building owner has an apartment complex consisting of three, two-story buildings, and each building has 20 units. All 60 units meet the qualifications to claim the credit. In year one, 48 of the units go under lease. The credit in year one would be $96,000 ($2,000 x 48). In year two, if the remaining 12 go under lease, a credit of $24,000 can be claimed in that year.

Of course, there are some costs for this benefit. The amount of basis in the building will need to be reduced by the amount of the credit claimed. Since a credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in tax liability, taking a credit over a deduction usually results in a more favorable tax position. There is also the cost for the study and certification, but this expenditure would qualify as a business deduction.

The credit can be claimed in the year the dwelling unit is leased or sold, and there is no limit on the number of qualifying units that can be claimed. The amount of the credit applied is limited to the tax liability (meaning it’s not a refundable credit), and the credit cannot be used to offset AMT. However, any unused credit can be carried back one year or carried forward for 20 years.

The following types of projects should be evaluated, as there are typically benefits available for:

• Affordable housing (LIHTC);

• Apartment buildings;

• Assisted-living facilities;

• Production-home developments;

• Residential condominiums; and

• Student housing.

179D: Tax Deduction for Commercial Real Estate

While 45L typically applies to residential properties, 179D is designed for energy-efficient commercial buildings and offers a tax deduction of up to $1.80 per square foot for energy-efficient lighting, HVAC systems, and the building envelope.

Unlike most deductions, which are based on the amount spent, this deduction is primarily based on square footage. New construction and a wide range of improvements, from simple lighting retrofits to full-scale construction projects, are eligible for this beneficial tax break.

Improvements are limited to the affected area, and to be eligible, they must reduce energy and power costs by making investments in any of the following categories: a building’s envelope, HVAC and hot water, and/or interior lighting systems.

Beneficiaries of this deduction may include:

• Building owners (commercial or residential);

• Tenants making improvements; and

• Architects and designers of government-owned buildings.

Added Benefits for Architects and Designers of Government Buildings

Architects and designers who implement energy-efficient designs on government buildings are also eligible for the 179D tax deduction if their design meets the criteria. Because government entities cannot use the tax deduction, they can assign the deduction to the designer in the year that the building was placed in service. Since 179D was extended retroactively, architects, engineers, and building contractors should review government projects from prior years to obtain all the deductions for which they are eligible.

Claiming the Benefit

Pursuant to the IRS guidance on claiming these green-building tax breaks, taxpayers are required to certify the tax credit or deduction with a detailed engineering analysis. These supporting studies can be generated by a third-party provider.

While a taxpayer may have missed out on tax credits or deductions when filing original tax returns, the good news is that the tax benefits can be claimed retroactively, dependent on the taxpayer’s situation. A tax preparer can assist in the finer details while working with a qualified professional that has expertise in securing both 45L and 179D tax incentives.

Lisa White, CPA is a tax manager with Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; [email protected]

CJ Aberin is a principal at KBKG and oversees the Green Building Tax Incentive practice. Over the last several years, he has performed green building tax incentive studies and cost segregation for clients in various industries that range from Fortune 500 companies to individual real estate investors.

Brandon Val Verde is a certified energy plans examiner and senior manager within the Green Building Tax Incentives practice of KBKG. His understanding of various energy standards and codes such as ASHRAE 90.1, IECC, and Title 24 allow him to identify opportunities for Green Building Tax Incentives.

 

 

 

Home Improvement

Help Wanted

With home-improvement demand surging in 2019, contractors say they can pick and choose from available jobs, which isn’t always ideal for consumers, who often have trouble finding a professional who can fit them in. In realty, most contractors would love to take on more jobs — but can’t because it’s not easy to find talent, especially young talent with the potential to grow with a company over the long term.

In one sense, it’s a good problem to have, Andy Crane said — but it’s still a problem.

He’s talking about an ongoing shortage of skilled labor in the construction field, making it difficult for companies to keep up with what continues to be high consumer demand for home-improvement projects.

The good part of the problem is that they can be more selective about the projects they want to tackle, but that’s not always great for the consumer, and it stifles growth, said Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but the workforce is very tight, and it’s difficult for companies to respond to everyone. They’re just booked out for a long period of time,” he went on. “Skilled labor — especially young skilled labor — is few and far between.”

Crane gets calls from homeowners looking for a contractor for a project but struggling to nail one down who can fit them in, and that labor shortage has a lot to do with it, he told BusinessWest. “A lot of contractors are in the same boat. I guess it’s a good problem on our side, but it’s bad PR.”

Stephen Ross, partner at Construct Associates in Northampton, understands the problem well. “We just hired two new guys, which is a nice thing to be able to do these days. We just snapped them up. It’s hard — the majority of people applying for jobs have been in their late 50s, even early 60s. But we try to hire for the long haul.”

Still, business has been positive for a long stretch now at Construct, which boasts plenty of residential construction in its mix of projects.

“Kitchens and bathrooms are still big sellers around here — lots and lots of them,” Ross said, noting that the prevailing design trends of the past couple of years continue to dominate, among them open floor plans, tile in bathrooms, hardwood floors, and granite and quartz surfaces in kitchens.

The Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), which issues quarterly state-of-the-industry reports, is bullish on the rest of 2019. According to HIRI’s quarterly Project Sentiment Tracking Survey of 3,000 homeowners, several trends stand out:

• About 75% of homeowners are planning one or more projects in the next three months — the highest project-planning incidence since tracking began in 2012, according to the organization.

• The top motivators for projects include repair, replacement, and routine maintenance.

• The average homeowner plans to complete 4.3 projects in the next three months.

• The top projects include kitchens, windows, driveways, exterior paint, and roofs.

• The Northeast is home to the nation’s highest percentage of project planners in the second quarter — not surprising, as the region’s housing stock tends to be older than in many other areas of the country, so there’s plenty of work to be done.

Other Trends

Energy efficiency remains a trend at the forefront of home improvement as well. Each year, Fixr, an online home-improvement community, polls experts in the home-design industry to discover what the upcoming trends in home design and building will be. This year, the site polled industry experts on what they believe are the top ways that homeowners will utilize design trends and new innovations to help lower their energy bills in the coming years.

According to the poll, a majority of homeowners are personally motivated to save energy in order to save money, yet they also have a significant environmental awareness, which is driving some decisions.

The poll revealed that ducts and windows are the two most effective places to save through air sealing, heat pumps are the most popular method to heat an energy-efficient house, tankless heaters are the most efficient way to heat water, solar power remains the most common way to utilize renewable energy in the home, and cellulose and fiberglass are tied as the most popular ways to insulate an attic.

Another trend analysts have been keeping an eye on for years has been the rise of DIY (do-it-yourself) projects, spurred partly by a greater variety of resources available to homeowners and the abundance of inspiration available on home-improvement television programs and websites.

According to HIRI, roughly two-thirds of completed home-improvement projects are done completely DIY, and three-quarters have at lease some DIY involvement. The level of professional work is dependent on the project. Painting and landscaping are overwhelmingly DIY, while roof and siding replacement are heavily dependent on professional work. Interestingly, HIRI’s poll suggests that, while most who finish their projects are satisfied, those who complete them totally DIY report a higher satisfaction rate.

Not surprisingly, projects done with professionals cost significantly more than those undertaken DIY, and survey respondents who used professional contractors showed a higher likelihood of having the total cost of their project be higher than expected.

As homeowners age, they tend to move away from doing the work by themselves, shifting to professional contractors more frequently. Baby Boomers are twice as likely to hire a pro than a Millennial. The use of professionals is also largely dependent on household income. As family income goes up, so does the likelihood that a contractor is hired to complete a remodeling project.

Whether professional or DIY, annual gains in improvement and repair spending, while still healthy, are projected to continue decelerating through early 2020, according to the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. LIRA forecasts that year-over-year growth in homeowner remodeling expenditure will slow from about 7% this summer to 2.6% by the first quarter of 2020.

“Cooling house price gains, home-sales activity, and remodeling permitting are lowering our expectations for home-improvement and repair spending this year and next,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies. “Yet, more favorable mortgage rates could still give a boost to home sales and refinancing … which could help buoy remodeling activity.”

Abbe Will, associate project director in the Remodeling Futures Program, added that “home-improvement and repair spending has been in an extended period of above-trend growth for several years, due to weak homebuilding, aging homes, and other factors. However, growth in remodeling is expected to fall below the market’s historical average of 5% for the first time since 2013.”

Aging in Place

One strong home-improvement trend in the Northeast involves Baby Boomers, who continue to pour into their retirement years at the rate of about 10,000 a day — and want to spend those years in their own homes if possible. As a result, many projects today involve making those homes safer and more accessible, with improvements ranging from night and security lights to wider interior walkways to curbless showers.

But older homeowners are also going for modern and attractive features, Ross said. “People are wrapping things up, things they’ve let go for decades. People are moving toward fixed incomes and are planning that last hurrah — maybe a garage addition. Or decks need replacing, or siding needs replacing — and nothing gets cheaper the longer you wait.”

In fact, building costs are more expensive than ever, Crane said, for reasons ranging from heavy regulation in Massachusetts to new tariffs at the federal level to inevitable economic trends. But the landscape remains a healthy one for builders and remodelers — if they can find the help they need.

“Construction companies can pick and choose their jobs,” he said. “It’s a great sellers’ market.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Total Transformations

With the economy chugging along, home-improvement businesses report solid activity over the past few years, with the prospect of more to come. Locally, perhaps partly because of a relatively mild December and January, companies logged more customer calls during a time of year when homeowners traditionally want to hibernate. Now, on the cusp of spring, they’re ready to hit the ground running.

If there’s one thing R.J. Chapdelaine is grateful for, it’s changing tastes in home design.

Take, for example, the current trend — one that has been building over the past decade or two — of open floor plans.

“People seem to want to open up the kitchen to family room space, open the kitchen to dining room, and create that open floor plan. That, I think, is what we see the most, taking someone’s compartmentalized house and opening it up,” said Chapdelaine, owner of Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons in East Longmeadow.

“You see the center-hall Colonial with a dining room, living room, and kitchen, and we go in and open up the walls,” he continued. “I say, thank God my grandfather and my father built them the way they did. Now I can go in and open them up. It’s job security. And you watch — someday down the road, it’ll go back.”

Whatever the trends and the homeowner’s personal tastes, the home-improvement industry has been riding a wave for some time now.

According to the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), the market for home-improvement products and materials grew by 6.3% in 2018 after a 7.3% jump in 2017. Breaking it down further, the professional market increased by 9.9% last year, while the consumer market saw a sales increase of 4.7%. That trend is expected to slow slightly over the next three years, but still increase by an annual average of 4.2% through 2022.

“What I’ve seen is a very strong push for kitchens and baths, additions, and remodels,” Chapdelaine said. “That seems to be our strongest portion of the business right now. The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

“The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

That’s somewhat surprising because normally calls slow through December, January, and February, he added. “Over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that people really don’t want us in their house around the holidays. But this year, it’s been incredibly strong right through the winter months, which is great. As we gear up for spring, there’s a lot of work on the board. Usually we would be expecting the phone to ring now in anticipation of a good spring start, but it’s been ringing throughout the winter.”

Frank Nataloni, co-owner of Kitchens & Baths by Curio in Springfield, has also seen a busier-than-usual winter, perhaps because the snowfall has not been too onerous.

“We’re a year-round operation, but it really depends on the type of winter we have,” he said. “If we have a mild winter, what happens is demand ends up being spread out, and we see a bit more people through the winter. When the weather is really bad, nobody goes outside. Either way, spring is always the strongest time from a sales standpoint.”

According to the Project and Sentiment Tracking Survey conducted by HIRI toward the end of 2018, which queries adults across the U.S. about their planned home-improvement projects, outdoor living spaces will feature the most activity in the next three months. More than one-quarter of homeowners surveyed indicated they will take on lawn and garden and/or landscaping projects during this time.

R.J. Chapdelaine

R.J. Chapdelaine says the region’s older housing stock and demographic changes have contributed to a strong remodeling business in recent years.

Taking all types of projects into consideration, inside and out, the Northeast and South lead the way, with about two-thirds of homeowners in both regions saying they plan home-improvement projects this spring.

Meanwhile, whether homeowners shoulder the work themselves is relatively dependent on the project type. On average, a little more than half of all projects are of the DIY variety — and of those, many involve outdoor living spaces, with 82.6% of homeowners tackling landscaping projects.

“I have to say, people feel confident, and they’re willing to spend money on their house,” Chapdelaine said. “It seems as though people are upbeat, and we’re reaping the phone calls and the benefits of that consumer confidence.”

Trending Topics

HIRI reports that, nationally, the home-improvement products market continues to outperform many other sectors of the economy. At the organization’s 2018 Industry Insights Conference last fall, experts in the sector shared what they felt were some prevailing trends heading into 2019. Among them:

• DIYers are more likely to be Millennials, which may have to do with that generation’s connection to devices. “DIYers spend more than 60 hours per week on TV and digital devices, including computers and smartphones,” Peter Katsingris, senior vice president of insights at Neilsen, told conference attendees, according to Forbes. “The technology and the choices it provides make DIY a realistic option for people.”

• More than one-third of homeowners who completed a home-improvement project in the past year regret not spending more on the project.

• The rental housing market is on the rise. A wave of growth has increased the number and share of rental households in the U.S., especially higher-end rentals in urban areas. This reality could lead to greater interest in portable and free-standing home-improvement products tenants can take with them when they move, as opposed to permanent fixtures.

• With home wellness on the rise, the lighting industry has been coming up with intriguing options. A technology known as circadian rhythm lighting is one rising trend, producing indoor illumination that more closely matches natural light in its warmth and, paired with home automation, can shift through the day with the sun to ease the impact of artificial light on the human body.

• Finally, remodeling activity isn’t slowing down anytime soon, due in part to an aging housing stock. With home prices increasing and new construction harder to find in some areas of the country, people are staying put and remodeling. “With the existing house stock averaging 38 years old, much of the inventory is in need of updating,” Mark Boud, senior vice president and chief economist at Hanley Wood/Metrostudy, told the conference.

That aging stock is an especially relevant reality in Western Mass., but so is another trend boosting the remodeling market: an increasing desire among Baby Boomers to age in place.

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio reflects some current trends in kitchens, particularly its color palette dominated by white and grey.

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes,” said Lori Loughlin, manager of Frank Webb Home in Springfield. “They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

In some cases, that means installing mobility and safety equipment, but in others, it means building in-law suites, or even moving to — by either building or remodeling — a smaller house.

“We’re getting phone calls now for people looking to to downsize,” Chapdelaine said. “I think the Baby Boomers are going to be looking for that smaller house and aging in place.”

Style Points

As for interior styles, those haven’t shifted much over the past couple of years. Painted cabinetry finishes and color palettes dominated by white and grey are still popular in kitchens and bathrooms, Nataloni told BusinessWest. “I just did a process of cherry wood with a black finish rubbed off, and the cherry comes through the black. It’s spectacular, actually.”

Styles change, he noted, but they don’t change abruptly. “White is very popular, grey is popular, but we are starting to see other colors, hints of yellow and green, coming in. I’ll be doing a yellow kitchen — not school-bus yellow, a very pale yellow, but a very warm color.”

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes. They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

Chapdelaine reported similar, gradual movement toward color, but mainly pastels and muted colors, not too much that would be characterized as bold. “We’re still seeing a lot of white cabinetry and floors stained a number of different colors. With surfaces, we’re still running strong in quartz — some granites, but mainly quartz.”

The most important trend, of course, is that the home-improvement business as a whole remains strong.

“We’re seeing everything from full bathroom jobs to kitchens with the walls removed, right up to additions, which are ranging from family rooms to master suites,” he said. “We’re seeing more whole-house updates — painting, hardwood floors, that kind of work — and we’re also seeing whole-house remodels, which is very similar to building a house. You’re gutting the house down to the bare studs, going through and doing a new bathroom, new kitchen, new flooring, new drywall, which is kind of nice.”

He expects spring to bring its usual rush of customer inquiries as the weather continues to improve, but said people looking to get into the queue for the spring should really be calling in February and March.

Nataloni agrees, and says he appreciates the fact that, with the economy performing fairly well, homeowners are investing more money in their living space, whether they plan to stay there for a long time or improve the house’s dated look in preparation to sell it.

“We have a lot of older housing stock around here,” he said. “Wherever you go, you see someone working on their house.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Foundation to Roof

The Western Massachusetts Home & Garden Show may last only four days each March, but Lori Loughlin says vendors reap the benefits all year long.

“The exposure at the show is tremendous,” said Loughlin, manager of Frank Webb Home in Springfield. “It pays for itself within the first week after the show closes. In May, June, July, people are coming in saying, ‘I was at the home show, and I saw this showerhead.’ They come back six months after and want to buy something they saw there. It’s nice.”

Loughlin, who serves as the event’s deputy chair for 2019, said her company, the showroom division of F.W. Webb, offers such a wide variety of products and services that it’s a no-brainer to participate in the show, which, in its 65th year, will feature more than 350 vendors displaying at more than 700 booths.

“You’ll find landscaping, appliances, hot tubs, bathrooms … you can go from foundation to roof and everything in between,” she said.

The Home & Garden Show, slated for March 28-31, is produced by the Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts (HBRAWM), whose 500-strong membership reflects the variety on the show floor, with roughly 90 categories on display from builders, remodelers, kitchen and bath specialists, landscapers, painters, roofers, financial institutions, pool companies, and more.

“We can give you a snapshot of what’s out there, of what’s new,” said Andy Crane, HBRAWM president. “The key word is local. Almost every business in there is local; these are the people who managed to stay in business through the ups and downs of the economy, and they’re there to show their wares.”

“The key word is local. Almost every business in there is local; these are the people who managed to stay in business through the ups and downs of the economy, and they’re there to show their wares.”

Crane said 2019 has been one of the show’s better years, with fewer than a dozen booths left to sell two weeks before the event was set to begin. In short, it remains the association’s signature showcase.

“People are going to see companies and meet owners that they probably wouldn’t be exposed to by word of mouth,” Loughlin said. “I can’t believe how many companies are involved in this home show. It’s huge. And we get such a rebound on this.”

While recognizing the show’s potential to connect businesses with homeowners, she said the cross-promotion that goes on is just as valuable as the visitors who walk through the door.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says the 2019 Home & Garden Show is shaping up to be one of the strongest, if vendor commitments are any indication.

“The networking between companies has been great for our company,” she told BusinessWest. “We tie in with the tile people and kitchen-design people, who send people here to find sinks. It’s nice to create relationships with other vendors.”

Something for Everyone

The home show started as a way to generate revenue to support the association, but it also provides member companies with a chance to market to an audience — and a big one, with around 20,000 visitors over the four days in a typical year — that might not otherwise see their name. Conversely, it gives attendees, many of whom simply come to the show for fun, a host of concrete (or hardwood, or tile, or whatever) ideas for home improvement.

The exhibitors run the gamut from inspection services to security and alarm systems; Internet and communications to moving and storage; duct cleaning to pianos and organs. Meanwhile, show attendees fall into one of several categories, the association notes, including:

• People planning to buy or build a new home, who may visit with builders, real-estate agents, financial institutions, and sellers of component products, such as hardwood flooring, tile, and appliances;

• People planning to remodel or renovate, who may want to check in with all of the above, plus vendors of replacement components such as windows and doors, as well as appliances, wall treatments, and home furnishings;

• Yard and garden enthusiasts, who tend to be interested in lawn and landscaping services; wall, walk, and edging components and materials; and trees, shrubs, flowers, and seeds;

• Lifestyle-conscious individuals, who like to check out trendy, high-tech, or time-saving products; home furnishings; and products focused on self-improvement, fitness, and health;

• Committed renters, who have no plans to own a house, but may be interested in space-conservation and space-utilization products, as well as home furnishings;

• Impulse buyers, who flock to vendors of home décor, arts and crafts, cooking and baking products, jewelry, and personal goods; and

• Those who attend the show purely for fun, who may arrive without an agenda but often develop ideas for future purchases and home products. “More than any other group,” according to the association, “these people are the ones who have come to rely upon our show on an annual basis and who perhaps have the greatest impact upon our vendors.”

Indeed, Crane told BusinessWest, “it’s not just about coming to the show and spending money with the vendors, even though we hope that’s the case. It really is a social event. That’s the mindset — it’s a nice evening out, and people walk out of the show with ideas of their home.”

Once again, visitors will see the LIXIL Beauty in Motion 49-foot mobile showroom in the Young Building, showcasing an array of American Standard, DXV, and Grohe kitchen and bath products.

“We have a mobile showcase with active and working plumbing fixtures, the newest and greatest features in plumbing, from toilets to water-saving showerheads,” Crane noted.

Also in the Young Building, chefs from across the Pioneer Valley will create some of the signature dishes they serve at their restaurants. Visitors can see how they prepare some of their favorite dishes and perhaps ask how to tailor those dishes to fit their own family’s taste. This popular area, hosted by WMAS Radio, will also include cooking seminars every day of the show.

“It’s not just about coming to the show and spending money with the vendors, even though we hope that’s the case. It really is a social event.”

The Young Building will also be home to several kids’ and family activities, from the Melha Shriners clowns to Thousand Cranes Studio, which will be on hand to show off the creative talent of their students, as well as conduct hands-on activities with show attendees. Other attractions will include live butterflies from Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory & Gardens, taking pictures on one of the go-karts from Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting, science experiments at the Rolling Acres Outdoor & Science Summer Camp, a Springfield Thunderbirds booth, face painting, and Looney Tunes characters from Six Flags New England. On Saturday and Sunday, the West Springfield Police Department will be on hand to fingerprint children and offer safety tips, and the Chesterfield Fire Department will give out hats and coloring books.

“There are a lot of different things to do, so you don’t have to come only for a siding or roofing job,” Crane said. “You can go have a nice, inexpensive time in a warm, dry facility.”

Business and Pleasure

In addition to Loughlin, Gisele Gilpatrick of Pro-Tech Waterproofing in Chicopee will serve as Home Show chair, while other committee members include Lisa Grenier of Market Mentors, Joe Mole’ of C.J. Carpentry, Josh Nolan of Fuel Services, Tom Silva of Triple S Construction, and Brian Zippin of Contractors Home Appliances. All are ramping up for what most in the home-improvement world say looks to be a strong year (see related story, page 24).

“This year, as every other year, the home show is a spring kickoff to the building season,” Crane said. “It’s the perfect time of year when people are thinking about projects both inside and outside the house. The show gets their minds moving a little bit.”

Again, though, he stressed that show organizers also want people to have fun.

“Take your wife out to dinner and swing by the home show, or call your brother or your neighbor. You can get out of the house and look at 700-something booths with different products — maybe something you’ve dreamed about.”

This year’s show hours are Thursday and Friday, March 28-29, 1-9 p.m.; Saturday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, March 31, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is $10 for adults, and children under 12 are admitted free. Discount coupons are available at www.westernmasshomeshow.com. Veterans and active military with ID receive free admission on Thursday only.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Serving Up Style

Karen Belezarian-Tesini (left) and Sarah Rietberg

Karen Belezarian-Tesini (left) and Sarah Rietberg are selling plenty of white and gray tiles these days.

Professional designers can often walk into a house and tell what decade it was built in by the styles of certain rooms, and the kitchen is definitely high on that list. From the high-gloss look of the ’80s to the more neutral ’90s; from a shift back to color at the turn of the Millennium to the current embrace of whites and grays, kitchens do seem to reflect their time. But one trend of the past generation isn’t likely to change — the increased perception of the kitchen as a home’s main hub of activity.

The economy wasn’t the only thing that went flat a decade ago. So did kitchen colors.

“When the economy tanked in 2007, 2008, everything became very flat. Color was gone, along with texture, pattern, flowers. Everything became industrial and cold — no frills. And that’s how the economy was, too,” said Karen Belezarian-Tesini, manager of Best Tile in Springfield. And she’s not the only one who noticed the coinciding trends.

“It’s funny how the economy dictates the colors,” said Frank Nataloni, co-owner of Kitchens & Baths by Curio in Springfield, recalling how many kitchens of the late ’80s featured high-gloss surfaces and plenty of black and red, but when the recession of the early ’90s hit, it was all earth tones. By 2000, color had come back, but around 2008, neutrals took over again. “I don’t know what that means, but when you look back, you can clearly see it.” That decade-ago shift has stuck, however, and even intensified, he added. “Everything now is white and gray.”

While taupe is making a comeback, said Belezarian-Tesini — “I love that more than gray because it gives you an option to go either way, warm or cool” — she’s seen the white-and-gray trend intensify over the years. But better financial times might be causing a subtle style shift.

“Now that the economy is picking back up, it’s getting a little warmer — softer edges, a little more color in glass mosaic or patterns,” she said.

That would be just fine by Lisa Lindgren, designer with Kitchens by Chapdelaine in East Longmeadow.

“The most popular kitchen is white — white on white. So whenever I get a client who wants some color and wants to do something a little different, I get excited,” she told BusinessWest. “People tend to be so scared of color. A lot of it is about sellability, but we tend to encourage people to go for what you like. It’s your house.”

Frank Nataloni

Frank Nataloni says styles shifted away from bold colors when the economy tanked, and have largely remained muted since.

R.J. Chapdelaine, owner of the company, an offshoot of builder and remodeling firm Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons, agreed.

“Whenever you have someone who comes in with a little imagination, wants to have a little fun, it gets exciting,” he said. “And why not? That’s where people want to spend their time. Kitchens are getting bigger, and other living spaces are getting a little bit smaller.”

For this issue’s focus on home improvement, BusinessWest visited a few companies that deal in kitchen design to get a read on some of the hot styles — only to find that the hottest is a decidedly cool white. But they offered plenty of other food for thought as well.

What’s Your Style?

Take countertops, for instance, where white- and gray-colored quartz surfaces are in, both Lindgren and Nataloni said.

But they’ll find contrast in other places, Lindgren noted, like weathered driftwood for accent pieces or a dark wood floor — or, more commonly these days, porcelain planks designed to look exactly like wood. “That’s the most popular floor. You can’t even tell it’s not wood. It’s pretty fascinating.”

“That seems to be what everyone’s looking for right now,” Nataloni added. “With some of them, it’s amazing how much it actually looks like real wood. You can even feel the texture. That’s what people are looking for.”

And homeowners aren’t stopping in the kitchen, Belezarian-Tesini said. “When I sell those planks, I might sell 2,000-3,000 square feet at a time. They’re doing their bedrooms, they’re doing the whole house. It’s just incredible. People say, ‘oh my gosh, I love that,’ and when we tell them that it’s porcelain, they look again and say, ‘are you sure? Really?’ ‘Yeah, really.’”

In addition to the move away from tile floors into wood and wood-like porcelain, Chapdelaine noted that shiplap walls — in both vertical and horizontal patterns — are popular as well, perhaps driven by their ubiquitousness on HGTV.

As for cabinetry, while painted white tops the list right now, Nataloni said, he was working with someone recently who wants a black cabinet with a rubbed-off type of finish so there’s some wood coming through. Still, those neutral shades provide plenty of flexibility.

R.J. Chapdelaine and Lisa Lindgren say it’s fun to work with customers who have a design vision not necessarily bound by what’s currently fashionable.

R.J. Chapdelaine and Lisa Lindgren say it’s fun to work with customers who have a design vision not necessarily bound by what’s currently fashionable.

“With a white or gray cabinet, we can make it look very formal or casual in the scheme of things,” he said. “I haven’t sold a cherry kitchen in over a year, but at one time, that was probably 60% of our business. Some woods remain relatively popular, though, including walnut. “That’s the fashion part of the business, and it changes depending on who walks through the door.”

Sarah Rietberg, showroom manager at Best Tile, said all these trends amount to people seeking a clean, uncluttered look in their kitchens, which is why subway-style tile backsplashes are still common, but with a twist — different sizes, something with a little texture to it, or even lines that aren’t perfectly straight.

“Those things can add some oomph to subway tile,” she said. “People want a little movement, but nothing too crazy. They don’t want to take away from the other things going on.”

In addition, a well-placed accent color can be striking amid a sea of white, Chapdelaine said. “We just did one all-white kitchen with a hale navy blue island, and it’s a striking look.”

Indeed, Belezarian-Tesini said, many customers complement the dominance of white and gray with mosaic tile backsplashes; where once a mosaic pattern broke up the solid color of the rest of the backsplash, now it’s being used across the entire backsplash to break up the white of the kitchen.

Sometimes it’s hard to predict the next trend, she added. “If you asked me 10 years ago if glass would still be here, I’d have said no, but glass is hotter than it’s ever been. It’s the medium of choice now. People still use ceramic, and porcelain has really come up the ladder. But glass has become the decorative. It’s a 10-year trend for sure, and it’s probably going to last longer than that.”

Meanwhile, she sees metallic tile coming into its own. “As technology gets better, you’re going to see more things within the glazing. You’re even seeing crystals in the glazing, little pieces of metal, to create a true, realistic metallic. So technology advances, and the tile changes.”

Good, Better, Best

The upside of so many options in kitchen surfaces is that there’s typically something for every budget, Nataloni said.

“We have to have a good, better, and best product selection,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a product for people flipping homes that’s very current with the trends, reasonably priced, good quality, with a quick turnaround time. Then we have a semi-custom type of product that offers a lot of selection and is a little quicker than the higher-end product. That means a lot if someone is doing a home renovation, because a kitchen is not an inexpensive proposition. If you know where to save money, you can get more bang for your buck, and that’s our skill.”

Some customers arrived with a vision in mind for their kitchen, he explained, and his job is to refine it. “Then there are other people who come in and don’t have a vision, and they’re looking for me to help them create the vision. That’s why we have to be flexible in meeting the need of whoever is coming to us.”

To help people envision the end product — quite literally — Nataloni uses a virtual-reality device called ProKitchen Oculus, which uses Oculus VR goggles to allow people to walk around in the environment Nataloni has programmed into the computer.

“For people who have a hard time visualizing, it really solves that problem for them,” he said. “We create a basic floor plan in 3D, and you’re actually in the room, so you can look and walk around. They literally see what they’re going to buy, or as close as possible to what it’s going to be like.”

For example, one customer was having trouble envisioning the soffit Nataloni suggested for the top of their cabinets. “Then I showed it to them on the Oculus, and their response was, ‘oh, now I understand what you were talking about.’ For those type of people, it really helps tremendously.”

Chapdelaine also sees a healthy mix — about 50-50 — of people who know exactly what they want and customers who need a little more guidance. “And that guidance can occur through Lisa, or through decorators. We see clients occasionally bring in a decorator to help them make decisions on color, cabinetry, and tile.

Most of those are typically renovating their whole house, Lindgren added. “It doesn’t tend to happen just with a kitchen, but with a broader scope.”

Whole-home renovations are common these days, said Chapdelaine, who noted that the remodeling business has been outpacing new home building for some time. His grandfather, who first hung out a shingle in 1925, saw the value of remodeling work early on, and evolved the firm in that direction after originally focusing on new construction.

“That became an integral part of our business,” he said. “You have to evolve. I see people who just build houses or just remodel, and I’d find that difficult. You can go from building three, four, five houses at a time to building one or maybe none, and doing all remodeling.”

Open Wide

He and Chapdelaine’s father also recognized perhaps the most prominent shift in kitchen design, and one that remains dominant today — the open floor plan.

“They were building compartmentalized houses, but they rolled into a more open floor plan on the single-story executive ranches,” he recalled. “Now, there’s very little compartmentalized building. Everything is wide open, with less formal living spaces.”

Nataloni said homeowners prefer a free flow of traffic through the kitchen, and islands are desirable if they can be put in. “Gone are the days of the U-shaped kitchen or a peninsula only, unless it’s necessary. Everyone is looking to have cabinetry that creates the outside shell of the kitchen and then some kind of an island in the middle, whether it’s with seating or without.”

That’s also the style potential homebuyers prefer when they’re visiting open houses, which is one reason why hot trends — like that white and gray — remain so dominant once they take hold; people design the room not only for their own comfort, but with resale in mind.

“For many people, this is where they’re staying, but we do have a lot of people coming in saying, ‘look, I want to fix up the kitchen, and we’re not going to be here forever, so I want it saleable,’” he noted. “We get probably more of the people who are staying for the foreseeable future, and they want to enjoy it. That’s the majority of our business.

Belezarian-Tesini said most of her business at Best Tile contractor-driven — either builders putting up or remodeling houses, or homeowners shopping for product, then hiring a professional to do the work. The do-it-yourself crowd is much smaller — perhaps because the kitchen is such a critical part of 21st-century home life that people don’t want to get it wrong.

That said, “business has been fantastic,” she noted. “I’ve seen a lot of new construction over the last few years. When I started here 23 years ago, it was all new building. Then it went to remodeling, and now it’s coming back again to new construction, which is nice to see.”

So, for the foreseeable future, she’ll continue to track the design trends and help customers design the kitchen of their dreams — usually with an open concept.

“It makes for easy living, and really great entertaining,” she said. “After all, the kitchen is the heart of the home.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Sparking Success

Jay Peloquin says gas fireplaces are especially popular at a time when natural gas is inexpensive.

Jay Peloquin says gas fireplaces are especially popular at a time when natural gas is inexpensive.

 

Jay Peloquin remembers the heady days for pellet stoves, back in 2008, when oil surged to more than $100 a barrel.

“When oil prices were skyrocketing, we couldn’t keep these things in stock,” he recalled. “We had people lining up out the door just to order stoves because it would save them so much money over their regular heating bills.”

Oil prices have come down significantly since then, he said, but pellet stoves remain popular, particularly for people who otherwise heat their house with electricity or propane. “For people in the right situation, it’s still a great investment — it pays for itself within a few years, and you’re using a clean energy source.”

For Fireside Designs, a family business that dates back 40 years, those economic trends have occasionally impacted sales, said Peloquin, the West Springfield store’s general manager. But more important has been a continual focus on what products — in the categories of fireplaces, heating equipment, and grills — customers want most.

In the realm of fireplaces, that tends to be gas-burning units, in addition to pellet stoves. In addition, “if you have an existing brick-and-mortar fireplace used for wood, and if you want to convert it to gas to make it more efficient and get more heat out of it, you can do a gas fireplace insert, because natural gas is one of the cheapest ways to heat right now.”

As for new construction, Fireside receives a number of calls from consumers who want a higher-end fireplace rather than the one that came with the house.

“A lot of times, builders will spec in a fireplace for a customer, and if they’re building, say, a $400,000 house and putting in a $1,000 fireplace, something doesn’t add up,” Peloquin said. “So that’s when they come to us and see what’s available for their budget and the style they want, whether they want contemporary, traditional, or something in between. Some higher-end builders do tend to spec in some of the fireplaces we carry, because we definitely are on the higher end.”

Whether a large wall unit or a smaller fireplace installed above the TV, he said, there are plenty of options for customers who want to bring the heat home.

Tools of the Trade

When Peloquin’s father, Jean, launched the company 40 years ago, its product line was a far cry from what it is today.

Back then, the elder Peloquin sold tool sets, which evolved into a small retail store on Brookdale Street in Springfield, mainly focusing on tools and glass doors. From there, around the mid-’80s, he moved into selling and installing stoves, before relocating to Riverdale Street in West Springfield, not far from the store’s current location on that same road.

“We found that during our off season, we needed to keep busy. So that was when we got into the grills, which keeps us busy during the spring and summer.”

In 2004, Jay came on board, and has seen the store grow consistently since then. But he had a long path to his leadership role of today.

“When my father brought me in, he said, ‘go sweep the warehouse. Go stock the shelves,’” Peloquin recalled. “I wasn’t treated with kid gloves by any means. My father was very hard on me, but 14 years later, I can say it was worth it. Because I started at the bottom — from stockboy to installer to salesperson to general manager — it’s been a gradual path to where I’m confident, and the employees feel confident that I can lead them, and my father feels that way as well.”

During his tenure, Fireside saw a major shift to outdoor grills as a significant part of the inventory because people weren’t seeking out home-heating products during the warmer months of the year.

“We found that during our off season, we needed to keep busy,” he said. “So that was when we got into the grills, which keeps us busy during the spring and summer, even though during that time we’re still putting in fireplaces for new constructions and additions.”

Besides the Napoleon line of grills, Fireside sells the Big Green Egg, a versatile charcoal grill that does anything a regular grill or oven does, in addition to its capabilities as a smoker, he explained.

“Those are very popular as well. They have more of a cult following, whereas they don’t advertise nationally, but if you try the food off of them once, you’ve got to have one. It’s that good,” Peloquin said. “On the internet and YouTube, you’ll find people cooking new recipes, and we have customers who come in and say, ‘this is one of the best things I’ve ever bought,’ and they use it every day.”

Grill islands are becoming more popular as well, he noted, due to the growing prevalence of outdoor entertaining spaces. “Napoleon makes modular products, and you can put in, say, a sink or some cabinets for an outdoor kitchen. It’s something that’s relatively new for us, but something we’re definitely moving toward doing more of.”

As for the wintertime work, that’s the prime season for pellet stoves — Fireside is the number-two Harman dealer in the country — and gas fireplaces and inserts. “We’re starting to expand and getting into the commercial side of fireplaces as well, and we’re working with builders that are building senior citizens’ homes and resorts,” he said.

“There are things in my father’s 40 years of experience that I haven’t experienced, so I still need to learn from him. But also with all the new products that come out, we learn together,” he went on. “Every day, it’s a new thing — it’s learning, it’s evolving, not just in terms of products, but your advertising and who you’re marketing to.”

Take social media, for instance; Fireside has a robust Facebook presence, and highlights not only products, but informational links like safety tips.

“That’s the thing about social media — it isn’t necessarily about ‘come in and see our sale and buy this,’” Peloquin told BusinessWest. “If you engage people enough to where they want to read about something that goes on in their everyday lives, I feel like that’s brand building.”

Hot Takes

Because Fireside Designs has been around a long time, there aren’t many companies with the Peloquins’ experience in the field, he noted. That’s also a long time to develop good word of mouth and repeat business, which is something the team relies on.

“We can advertise all we want, but especially in this day of social media, if you’re not treating your customer right from A to Z, you’re not going to survive,” he said. “I’m taking over [leadership] gradually, and I want to make that a priority.”

Part of that reputation is shouldered by Fireside’s in-house technicians, he noted. “If you buy something from us, you don’t have to go somewhere else if something breaks. That’s the advantage of buying from a company like ours, a fireplace specialty store, as opposed to buying fireplaces online. People go to Home Depot and buy a fireplace, and then when something happens, they come to us for service. When you buy something from us, if anything goes wrong, we take care of our customers, and we service everything we sell.”

That’s just part of being a small business with deep community roots, he added.

“As a family business, we do appreciate when customers keep their business local. That’s helped us get to where we are today. Hopefully consumers realize that when you keep your business local, it supports the community.”

If Jean Peloquin set his son to sweeping floors 14 years ago instead of a cushy job he hadn’t earned, perhaps it was a way to determine whether he had a passion for this business. As it turned out, a fire was lit — both literally and figuratively.

“I don’t really consider this a job; I consider it what I do,” Jay said. “I consider this my future. I work every day not as a 9-to-5 thing, but to improve the business as a whole. I enjoy what I do, and I enjoy the fact that my experiences — from sweeping the floors to being an installer to what I do now — all of that together has made me a leader here. And I have employees that trust me — great employees that I look forward to keeping around for a long time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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