photo by: Courtesy: Lawrence Home Show
I know there have been times my housemates have wished my spring home improvement projects were virtual. (In fairness, the fire pit project did produce both a pit and a fire.) Well, this year’s Lawrence Spring Home Show is virtual, but the projects are very real and done by professionals.
Spring is when the Lawrence Home Builders Association usually hosts the largest home improvement show in the city, but the pandemic has put those traditional plans on hold. Instead, about 20 vendors are participating in an online fair that will still offer some special spring discounts, as well as allow residents to make connections with builders, remodelers, landscapers and other companies that can provide some advice or assistance on home projects.
“During this time we are really disappointed that we couldn’t host the in-person event,” Bobbie Flory, executive director of the Lawrence Home Builders Association, said. “We absolutely plan to pick that back up this time next year. But we didn’t want the spring to go by without offering some resources for people who are looking for help.”
People can attend the show — there is no admittance fee — by logging into lawrencehomeshow.com. From there, people can click to enter one of the several virtual booths. Many of those booths include videos about equipment or services offered by vendors. I saw one that briefly showed a product that allows you to use your smartphone to set your blinds to open and close with sunrise and sunset. (Personally, I think it would be a great product to use while hosting a Ouija board party too.)
All the booths also have digital contact information so that you can reach out with a particular question about a product or service the company may offer. Some booths also are giving away prizes to people who sign up.
The virtual home show began Monday and runs through April 4.
“It is still a good way to meet local companies,” Flory said.
Many of those companies are staying busy during the pandemic. Flory said some Lawrence construction companies have shifted more of their business to the remodeling market, as the community continues to struggle with finding the right formula for building new homes in the city. (More on that in a moment.)
“The remodeling business continues to be busy, and thankfully so because the home construction market is causing us to go through some real painful times right now,” Flory said.
Flory said some of the most popular remodeling projects currently involve home office space or other improvements that accommodate telework situations.
“What has really been popular is just larger spaces,” Flory said. “People just want more space for people.”
Flory said spring and summer projects would require some planning. With demand being strong, some projects require some lead time to get booked. Other projects require lead time just to ensure that all the materials will arrive on time. Getting appliances, like dishwashers, stoves and other such items can be challenging.
“I have some builders who are saying, ‘When you are pouring your foundation, order your appliance package then,’” Flory said. “There are certain things that are difficult to get. My advice is plan ahead for everything to go smooth.”
The home show isn’t the only occasion that is causing local builders to gather. Flory said the home builders association has convened a group to begin looking for solutions it can present to city commissioners related to a severe shortage of available homes in the community.
As the Journal-World reported earlier this month, there were only 44 homes on the market in Lawrence during the height of spring home-buying season. In a normal year, there are closer to 400 homes for sale.
The Lawrence Board of Realtors has sounded the alarm about that shortage, and Flory said the home builders association also was gravely concerned. Flory said she’s challenging her group to come up with some potential solutions rather than just highlighting what the problems are in the market. LHBA plans to be part of a study session that is scheduled to be convened by city commissioners in April.
“We can’t just say here are all the problems,” Flory said. “At some point we have to say here is what we can do.”
The simple answer would be for Lawrence home builders to start building more homes to meet strong demand in the market. Flory, though, said there are some reasons why that’s not happening. Getting a good understanding of those reasons is the best bet at creating some solutions, she said.
“Why are we in that situation?” Flory asked. “I think part of it is because it has become risky to develop in Lawrence. What are those risks? What has happened and what has changed that has caused it to become too risky for many developers? That’s what we need to find out and communicate. But at some point there is a breaking point and it causes a developer to say, ‘I’m out.’ It seems like we have hit that point.”
Flory said Lawrence likely still has an adequate number of builders in the area, but the number of developers — the people who pay large amounts of money up front to buy land and finance the streets, sewers and other infrastructure needed for new neighborhoods — has become a much smaller group in Lawrence.
And to be honest, it never was a huge group. Outsiders have long commented how few people historically have been the major residential developers in the city. Some of those people have simply aged out of the business, so to speak. Is there a new crop taking their place and, if not, why not?
Some of those questions are what Flory and her group hope to tackle. She also hopes the group can provide some perspective on some city statistics. The group has some frustration with the city’s estimate of the number of buildable residential lots that are available in the city. The city has inventory reports that show several years worth of lots that are already platted and available for homes in the city.
Flory said while those numbers were technically accurate, many of the lots have issues that make them difficult and unaffordable to build on.
City commissioners and other policy makers might benefit from a windshield tour of those lots to see some of those issues. Flory said figuring out this shortage of homes was important. It affects the affordability of homes throughout the city. If new home construction remains sluggish, that has a ripple effect throughout the market. Many times, smaller, more affordable homes become available after their owners sell and move into a larger, more expensive home.
“Hopefully, we will have some productive discussions with the city and the community about this,” Flory said. “If we don’t, things are going to be pretty expensive in this town for quite awhile, and that will be sad.”