Denise Nelson and her partner Dale Clark had been looking to buy a new house in the Corvallis area for more than 20 years. But they faced a shortage of homes on the market, especially those that had a country feel.
“We never found anyplace that’s better than this,” Nelson said, at their Leprechaun Lane home near Adair Village.
So they stopped shopping and upgraded their own place instead.
A $65,000 remodel is almost finished. The heart of the project is removing walls between a living room and the kitchen to create a great room. The appliances, cupboards and countertops also were upgraded.
“The kitchen is the area where most people live. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen. … When you have friends and family over, it seems like everybody gravitates to the kitchen. Now we have a great open area with an island that people can hang out at,” Nelson said.
The living room was wasted space before, with people preferring a family room downstairs.
While her remodel might sound expensive, it’s downright thrifty compared to the price of a new home, Nelson said.
She acknowledged that the Leprechaun Lane house will never be her dream home, but she was looking forward to the renovation’s completion.
“I think it will be a lot more functional and usable for us. I’m going to enjoy the open space,” she said.
And so will her daughter and grandchildren, who just moved into a house just down the street.
A typical remodel
In many ways, the house on Leprechaun Lane is a typical remodel, especially for Powell Construction of Corvallis, which is handling the job.
Powell Construction just wrapped up its 25th year in business, and the company's most common job is kitchen remodels, followed by bathroom projects. Others in the remodeling industry agree.
“Those are the two rooms that people use the most in the house. That’s probably at least 50 percent of what we do, kitchens and bathrooms,” said Pete Pyburn, owner of Pyburn & Sons, a North Albany business that started in 1960 and has clients in both Linn and Benton counties.
Dave Henderer, in his 23rd year with Henderer Design Build in Corvallis, saw the bathroom trend emerging and bought Rebath of Eugene in 2010.
Another common remodel is to create a great room, where walls between kitchens and living rooms are removed.
In previous decades, people wanted compartmentalized spaces with separate rooms for different functions.
“You had a dining room, you had a living room, you had a kitchen, and they were all separate,” Pyburn said.
By today’s standards, however, that’s outdated design, said Tom Powell, who owns Powell Construction with his wife Heidi Powell.
“People used to shop by the number of rooms. No one asks how many rooms are in your house anymore. That’s just gone,” he added.
Many of the smaller rooms tended to get underutilized, so the trend gradually moved toward the open concept. Figuring out how to replace load-bearing walls — such as with horizontal beams in the attic at Nelson and Clark’s house — has become a regular task for experienced remodelers.
The reason for the Leprechaun Lane remodel also is a familiar story in the tight Corvallis real estate market.
"There's nowhere to build," Henderer said, "and it's expensive to buy a new lot and build. It's not a good situation. We need development. We need land to build on. And I'm saying that knowing it wouldn't help my remodeling business."
People moving to town for jobs at Oregon State University or Samaritan Health Services often want the spacious lots and established neighborhoods, but they also desire the modern amenities that come with fancy new houses, the Powells said.
And that often leads to a remodel.
Pyburn said that because the real estate market currently is so hot in both Linn and Benton counties, he’s seen an increasing amount of people who want a remodel estimate before they even put in a bid to buy a house.
The Powells added that people thinking about buying a home and doing a great deal of remodeling should generally pass on the purchase. If the house isn’t priced as a fixer-upper, the math won’t work out.
“Smaller projects make more sense,” Heidi Powell said.
Other residents looking to remodel, such as Nelson and Clark, have lived in a home for years and have gotten to a point where they want a more livable space. Often, this happens when children are graduating from college and the family has a bit more income to spend, Tom Powell said.
“It’s worth it for them to upgrade their current homes (rather than buy new) because their houses are more valuable. It’s hard to find new houses in the neighborhood they want,” Heidi Powell said.
Cathy Kerr, who runs Spiral Design Elements in Corvallis with her partner, John Morris, notes that the town "has become a bit of a retirement community" and that some clients are looking to downsize or are interested in design elements that reflect an aging population.
"One of the things we do here is bring nature indoors," Kerr said, by using "texture, patterns and color and windows and skylights. That's really important to people. People here are sensitive to nature and the planet."
Additions, other trends
Large additions aren’t rare by any means, but they are far outpaced by smaller projects, said area builders.
“A lot of the houses in Albany are older, so they are smaller. And everybody wants bigger, now,” Pyburn said.
Additions, some of them as much as 2,000 square feet, usually will include a master suite.
Morris at Spiral Design Elements noted a recent client that took a phased approach to remodeling, starting with a master bathroom and an enlarged kitchens before moving on to bigger closets. Outdoor living spaces and landscaping completed the project.
Sometimes additions occur because of a “Brady Bunch” scenario, where divorced couples remarry, and end up with far more children than bedrooms for their combined family.
“Mother-in-law” houses have also become more common, as more extended families have an interest in living on the same property together, the Powells said.
“It can be for the kids to take care of the parents, or the parents to look after their children,” Tom Powell said.
The mother-in-law houses also can serve as a guest suite, and the Powells have occasionally have built these for Oregon State University professors who host visiting students.
Another trend is smaller houses that feature luxurious materials. Residents are moving away from creating huge houses that skimp on quality, Tom Powell said.
“In general, they’ve come up with amazing materials,” he added.
That includes engineered stone that that mimics marble and granite, as well as vinyl floors that look like hardwood.
Also, hardwood or floors engineered to look like hardwood are far more popular than carpet, and tile currently is big for bathrooms, the Powells said.
"People are more info high-end products that are going to last longer," Henderer said. "They used to just get by (on materials) and (upgrade) later. I'm not seeing that so much. Now, we are seeing more high-end finishes. People are feeling that home values will hold in Corvallis. They always do."
Customers have become more comfortable about remodels in part because of television shows such as those on HGTV that feature projects.
The internet and phone applications such as Houzz also have made it easy to look at projects from the mid-valley — or around the world — and glean ideas.
“All the sophistication in the stuff people want, it just didn’t exist before,” Heidi Powell said.
And the firms featured on the television shows have become celebrities with their own fan base.
“It’s almost like, ‘Who is your favorite sports team?’ ‘Who is you favorite house remodeler?’” Tom Powell said.
While television shows generate remodeling interest, they also can generate misconceptions, especially about the price of a project. The remodels featured on shows often are sponsored by companies to bring the cost down, the Powells said.
Thanks to the TV shows, people sometimes shoot for the moon – and expect to hit their mark – so remodelers have to scale back their expectations.
Henderer refers to it as the "aha ... come to Jesus moment" when the goals and objectives of the project have to align with the budget. That even happens with modest projects.
Nelson started off with a lavish list for the Leprechaun Lane renovation, for example, then prioritized to come to a comfortable price range. She didn’t eliminate some of the frills, however, such as a wine fridge.
Pyburn said that the timeline of the shows also is unrealistic.
“They don’t show everything that is happening, such as putting in wiring and plumbing hidden in walls,” he said.
Timelines also can be fluid because of contractors and subcontractors juggling multiple jobs, unlike many projects on television shows.
Remodels often need licensed plumbers, electricians and other specialty workers and scheduling them is tricky. If one subcontractor is delayed on another project, the remodel could be pushed back because some work must be done in a certain order.
Brent Hamilton of Powell Construction, lead carpenter on Nelson and Clark’s remodel, said he usually has between six to eight subcontractors.
The cost of a remodel typically goes up with each additional subcontractor, so residents sometimes help with demolition or painting to help bring the price tag down.
The downturn in the housing market which started in 2008 impacted renovation firms in ways beyond a shortage of new houses on the market.
Pyburn said business slowed and he had to make layoffs. “It was tough for a couple years. We were worried,” he added.
The Powells said kitchen remodels nearly disappeared and their business ended up focusing almost exclusively on bathroom projects, which typically are less expensive.
"When the economy tanked people still wanted to do bathrooms," Henderer said, "just not $30,000 ones."
There also was increased competition, and not just because of fewer customers.
“When the housing market dried up, a lot of new construction companies jumped into the remodeling market,” Heidi Powell said, adding that the trend cut into jobs for businesses already in that niche.
The construction firms that switched also weren’t used to the demands of the remodeling business, which includes plenty of customer service.
Remodeling firm representatives said they make sure to go over a project thoroughly with customers as it is designed and built. The Powells said they have weekly meetings with clients to answer questions about the process.
The projects, however, can take months, and the family often has to live in the house while the work is being done.
“Literally, we kind of move in with you in a sense,” Tom Powell said.
And no one likes an overly messy guest, especially when a house becomes a construction zone. People tend to get frustrated if there’s mud tracked all over the house or tools left lying around haphazardly, for example.
What kept many remodelers in business during the recession were repeat customers, Heidi Powell said. “We’ve done as many as four jobs for the same family,” she added.
Henderer agreed, noting that most of his customers are repeats or referrals.
Things have stabilized with the economic recovery, and Pyburn said business is booming.
Traci Hannah, office manager for Pyburn & Sons, said she’s been getting three to four calls a day for projects.
“You’re seeing the bigger jobs come back,” Tom Powell said.
“Whole house models have returned,” added Heidi Powell.
With home prices increasing throughout the area, people aren’t afraid to remodel their homes to boost values, the Powells said.
But they added that it’s never how much money you spend, but how you spend the money.
“Customers understand if you cut corners, you’re not going to get that out when you sell," Tom Powell said.
Henderer offered some simple math as a way of explanation.
"If you do a 50K kitchen in a 250K house it's not going to sell for 300K," he said. "You might get 260 or 270, and it might sell quickly. It's an investment in lifestyle. Adding square footage is more cost-effective."
Some remodels actually devalue the house, whether that’s because of a poorly executed improvement or because of style or material choices.
For that reason, firms recommended seeking expert design advice to make sure the remodel will create value, but also be worthwhile for the family.
“The best remodels you’re going to get for your money is something that integrates with the whole house,” Tom Powell said.
Pyburn and the Powells said they stress that clients should think about improving their houses for themselves, rather than focus solely on market resale value.
“Don’t be guided by what everybody else wants to do. Do what you want to do,” Pyburn said.
In Corvallis a lot of people want to do things in sustainable ways.
"People are looking for energy efficiency," said Morris of Spiral Design Elements. "They want local material, local contractors and to support local business. They also have concerns about toxic materials."
"No one wants to be in a toxic environment," Kerr added. "Corvallis wants to be green."
Morris and Kerr said they inform their residential clients about enviromentally friendly options.
"Commercial clients are more aware of it because of LEED certification," Kerr said.
Henderer said that his company sometimes uses different products and finishing materials because of a client's allergies. He also informs them about the possible use of Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber.
"There are a lot of sustainable products in our flooring," he said.
Morris noted the interest that some clients have in solar energy as well as cisterns to capture rain water and rain gardens.
"And I don't know the last time I did a project without LED lights," Kerr said. "They've come a long way.
"We just need to be doing these things everywhere. Our design is not for what's trendy. Good desgn is good design, and ther are a lot of directions to go right now. Letting people establish their own vision and bringing your expertise to that vision is where you want to go."