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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

County Homeowners Fueling a Remodeling Boom

Real estate: Residents are expected to spend $60 million on home-improvement projects this year.

July 20, 1999|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Listen closely and you can almost hear the hammers falling hard on steel nails.

But the sound isn't coming from huge housing developments like the Dos Vientos project in Thousand Oaks. It's coming from the homes of people like Lee Adams.

Adams, who recently purchased a home in the hills above Ventura, is about midway through a $70,000 project to add a few rooms to the property.

He is just one example of the thousands of county residents currently spending large sums to expand and spruce up their homes a little--or a lot.

"It's a pretty intense project," said Adams, who is tacking on 830 square feet to the home. "We bought the house because of the lot, the view and the area, but it really wasn't big enough for us. . . . We needed the addition."

Confident in the local economy and swimming in a sea of equity, Ventura County property owners are charging ahead with home improvements, fueling a record boom in the area's remodeling industry.

According to the Burbank-based Construction Industry Research Board, there will be an estimated $60 million worth of home-improvement projects in the county this year. That is up nearly 17% from 1998, when about $51 million was spent.

That follows a growing trend displayed throughout Southern California. This year, the board expects as much as $3.3 billion to be spent on home improvements in the five-county region--the highest level since 1992.

According to a number of regional building associations, the demand for home add-ons has also helped ratchet down the county's unemployment rate to near-historic lows.

In fact, construction is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy and is expected to create close to 500 more jobs this year than there are qualified applicants.

"We could be doing a lot more work, but there just aren't enough people to fill the jobs," Dee Zinke, executive officer for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, said recently. "The demand is there; the people aren't."

Jim Da Pra, president and owner of J.F. Da Pra General Contractors in Ventura, said that the phone has been ringing constantly with people eager to get something done to their home.

Although most of his work comes from insurance companies, he does a substantial amount of residential and commercial remodeling. His firm is doing the work on Adams' home.

The demand has gotten to a point where work is backlogged and he must be more discriminating about what jobs to accept.

"Certainly we're trying to take as much as we can," he said. "But I've only got 40 employees and it's not easy. . . . There is a lot of work out there, and everyone I know is very busy."

The boom is not only keeping contractors busy, but is cascading down the economic ladder to boost business for materials suppliers, electrical and plumbing subcontractors, architects and home decorators.

"It seems like everybody's doing something with their house these days," said Ray Prueter, executive director of the Ventura County Contractors' Assn. and the Tri-County Roofing Assn. "If I'd have to guess why, I'd say it's because most everybody's working and they've got money and they're pretty sure that it's going to pay off in the end."

Not that those planning to add a new bath or larger kitchen are doing it solely to increase the value of their home, he added, but that doesn't hurt.

One of the factors compelling homeowners to make those long-wanted improvements is the county's soaring residential real estate market. Increased demand and tight housing stocks have combined to boost property values to their highest value in more than a decade.

In June, the median home price jumped to an all-time high of $244,000--breaking the record $241,000 set in March 1989.

Confidence in continued property appreciation has helped ease the concern many feel when considering whether to sink thousands of dollars into a remodeling project.

Although Adams' decision was based mainly on his family's needs, he said a lot of thought went into whether making such a sizable investment in the 1,800-square-foot home would make financial sense.

"The house kind of has to appreciate enough to cover the cost of the investment," he said. "I'm confident that will happen and that everything will work out in the end. . . . I'm not worried."

And building analysts expect that as long as the county's robust economy keeps charging ahead, there will be a high demand for home remodeling and repairs.

But these trends are notoriously cyclical. The boom will wind down at some point, though no one can say when.

"I had a contractor ask me the other day if I ever thought about what it's going to be like in two years," Prueter said. "I told him no. Things are so good right now that I don't want to think about it."

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