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On the House: A time to sweat the small stuff

A reader recently asked where he could find someone to repair a porch column. He said he had contacted several contractors, who didn't return his calls.

A reader recently asked where he could find someone to repair a porch column. He said he had contacted several contractors, who didn't return his calls.

I suggested finding a carpenter to do the work. I recalled that the hardware store in his neighborhood posted a list of carpenters, masons, painters and others on a bulletin board in the paint department, and that it might be a good place to start.

In boom times, being unable to get a contractor to return your call is not unusual, especially if the job you want done is small.

In times like these, a small job is better than none, so I'm surprised by the lack of response to this reader's calls.

I'm getting mixed messages about the remodeling industry these days.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association, in an e-mail I received a few minutes before I started writing this column, was projecting that $118 billion would be spent on kitchen and bath remodeling in 2008.

Though the nation's remodelers see business improving, National Association of Home Builders chief economist David Seiders said the market "continues to show weakness, following the downturn in the overall housing market."

"We expect there to be some further erosion in 2008, with a gradual recovery in 2009," Seiders said.

Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, agreed, saying that "it looks unlikely that we will see any improvement in the remodeling market until 2009."

"Currently, the second half of this year is shaping up to be weaker than the first half," Baker said.

Architects are taking a hit, too. The American Institute of Architects' billing index fell to its lowest level ever in March, indicating a rapid slowdown in billings at U.S. architectural firms, said Baker, who is also the AIA's chief economist.

See, even economists need two jobs these days.

There are mixed signals aplenty. Home centers report significant losses each quarter, yet, if I need something, I have to show up at 7 a.m. Saturday to get a parking space close to the entrance.

I acknowledge, however, that my last visit to the home center, to buy two gallons of solid stain for my front porch's floor, was the first time I'd been there in three months. That visit was in February, to finish a basement-insulation project.

That's because my jobs are small enough these days that a quick trip to the neighborhood hardware store usually takes care of my needs. From the tight squeeze in the parking lot there and the lines at the cash register, I think many are sharing my hardware-store experience.

I think the problem with the home centers isn't that less home remodeling is going on - it's that too many of them have been built and stores in the same chain are competing with one another.

They also seem to have tried to cut costs by eliminating most of the experts - part-time or retired electricians, plumbers, carpenters and contractors - who could figure out your problem in a couple of minutes and offer the best ways to solve it.

As with residential real estate as a whole, it's impossible to generalize, but tighter credit seems to be affecting both home buying and remodeling equally.

A year or so ago, you could get a mortgage or a home-equity loan if you had a pulse. Today, you're lucky if you get your calls returned.

People are afraid not only of the risk of losing what they have, but also of making decisions that result in their losing more than they started out with.

What should you do? Until things settle down and the market begins heading back up - which it always does - think about doing smaller things.

Although I'm not planning to move anytime soon, I always make sure my house is ready for a quick exit.

Keep up with maintenance. Fix the roof. Paint. Repair the sidewalks. Insulate. Make your house energy-efficient. Landscape. Have that column on your porch fixed.

For now, just the little things. They do add up.