ATLANTA — The 45th annual convention of the National Assn. of Home Builders, which ended here last week, featured the usual gaggle of economists, congressman, designers and housing gurus. A record 68,000 builders and other professionals showed up to attend educational panels and, many hoped, to make a few deals for the year ahead.
But some of the most important stories--or at least some of the most interesting ones--weren't found at press conferences or panels. Instead, they were found on the floor of the mammoth exhibition that is part of the annual show and in the hallways of the Georgia World Congress Center, where the convention was held.
One Washington insider rejected builders' claims that tax deductions for mortgage-interest payments may be scaled back, but said another cherished break for homeowners is in jeopardy (see story on this page). Consumers who've been burned by incompetent remodelers will be happy to know that the industry is trying to clean up its act, while a little-known program that teaches construction skills to young people and then helps them find jobs is having a banner year.
Some Japanese journalists who covered the convention say a growing number of Tokyo builders are "importing" American designs, while some Southland builders went home envious of Atlanta's mass-transit system.
It seems that nearly every homeowner who has hired a remodeler can tell a horror story about a contractor who didn't show up on time or turned a two-week job into a summerlong event. Even owners who've had pleasant encounters with remodelers can usually relate a not-so-pleasant tale about a friend's renovation job.
In an effort to shore up the industry's reputation and make it easier for consumers to choose a reliable contractor, the Remodelors Council of the NAHB is launching a certification program that it hopes will distinguish the good remodelers from the bad.
To become a "certified graduate remodelor," or CGR, a contractor will have to have at least five years of professional experience and score well on an application that measures everything from his insurance coverage to the time he has spent providing non-building community service. At least three letters of reference must also be submitted.
Depending on how well the remodeler scores on the application, he must also take at least three and as many as nine educational courses. Each course costs about $150 and focuses on a different topic, from business codes and standards to cost-estimating.
Seal of Approval
Once the course work is completed, the remodeler can apply for certification.
"We're trying to remove the stigma of the 'suede shoe' operators," says Cynthia Milloy, a Maryland-based remodeler who has helped pull the certification program together.
Milloy hopes the new program "will eventually become something like an industry seal of approval for remodelers . . . like 'AIA' is for architects" or MAI is for appraisers. If you see CGR behind a remodeler's name, you'll know he's got something on the ball."
While some exhibitors at the annual show rely on pretty showgirls or flashy displays to attract attention, the Home Builders Institute depends on its reputation for producing hard-working, well-trained construction workers to attract visiting builders to its booth.
The little-publicized institute is the NAHB's educational arm. It turns 15 years old this year, and has become a key participant in the nationwide Job Corps program run by the U.S. Department of Labor.
People who sign up for the institute's free vocational-training program can learn one of 10 construction trades, from carpentry to landscaping. Many of today's Job Corps centers are former government installations, such as closed military bases, where the trainees hone their skills by rehabilitating older structures or building new ones.
Although the program is open to everyone, most of the participants are high school dropouts who have had trouble finding a good job, or young people who simply can't afford to attend college or trade school.
Paid During Training
As part of the HBI's program, students can also get help in math, English and other subjects needed to obtain a certificate that's the equivalent of a high school diploma.
Fred Day, the institute's national coordinator, says trainees are paid $100 a month and also given room and board at the Job Corps centers. When they can show sufficient expertise in their chosen field--typically, after a year's training--they get an additional lump-sum payment of $1,200 and a box of tools.
Importantly, Day says, the institute then refers them to a builder who needs someone with entry-level construction skills. Most of the jobs pay between $5 and $7 an hour, although a few pay as much as $12.
"When we started this program back in the '70s, we were only placing a few hundred kids a year," said Day, shortly after talking to a builder who asked for 10 Job Corps graduates for a new Maryland housing tract.