Remodeling projects are making a comeback

Spring cleaning is turning into spring remodeling this year for many homeowners.

Home improvement projects are starting to make a comeback after frugal consumers pulled the plug on remodeling and renovation work during the downturn.

With the economy showing signs of stabilizing and retailers and contractors continuing to offer good deals, many Southern Californians are sprucing up their homes’ appearance and value by repainting their bathrooms, installing new floors and carpets, and upgrading their kitchens.

Maritza Vega Gentry, a property manager from Glendale, said she’d hoped to begin remodeling her home in 2007 but put her plans on hold when the stock market crashed. This year, she said, she’s feeling more confident about the economy and plans to spend at least $5,000 on recessed kitchen lighting, ceiling fans and two sun roofs.

“I just sat back and waited for three years,” Gentry, 57, said while checking out light fixtures at Home Depot in Burbank recently. “Now I’m back to doing what I was supposed to be doing: remodeling and taking care of business. I’m doing every repair that I can right now.”

In a survey released last week by American Express, 62% of homeowners said they planned to embark on home improvement projects in 2010, spending an average of $6,200 on enhancements.

It’s a relief for the battered home improvement market, which saw consumer spending plummet about 27% since 2007 as homeowners delayed or scrapped remodeling plans.

According to a report this month by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the sector is estimated to see nearly 5% growth in 2010 — although industry experts caution that a full rebound will take a while.

“The gradual recovery in the broader economy should encourage more remodeling spending by homeowners,” said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the housing studies center. “This year could produce the first annual spending increase for the industry since 2006.”

In their most recent earnings reports, Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos., the nation’s two largest home improvement retailers, posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter results and said consumers seemed to be more willing to take on costlier projects.

At Lowe’s, based in Mooresville, N.C., “the worst of the economic cycle is likely behind us,” Chief Executive Robert A. Niblock said in a call with analysts.

Atlanta-based Home Depot said fourth-quarter business picked up in some areas in California and Florida — states hit especially hard by the housing crisis — and said that of its top 40 U.S. markets, all but two showed improvement at same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year.

“All of this gives us some cause for optimism in 2010,” Chief Executive Frank Blake said in a call with analysts. “We’ve been waiting for this transition for a long time.”

For fiscal 2010, Home Depot estimated that same-store sales would increase 2.5%; Lowe’s projected that its same-store sales would rise 1% to 3%.

Business still isn’t where it used to be for Sergio De Paula, 45, a general contractor from South Pasadena who specializes in installing outdoor kitchens. In the last few years, he saw revenue decline 40% to 60% as clients halted projects or opted for more modest outdoor setups.

“Now that the worst of the housing crisis is over, they’re starting to invest again, so we’re getting a lot more calls,” De Paula said. “It’s nowhere near pre-recession levels, but at least it’s starting.”

Joe McFarland, Western Division President at Home Depot, said many customers are now opting for do-it-yourself projects instead of hiring professionals, leading to a boost in sales of power tools, fertilizer and fruit and vegetable plants.

“The downturn changed people’s outlook on the way they spend money for years to come,” he said. “We’re all anxiously awaiting what the new normal will be.”