Habitat for Humanity Tucson’s HabiStore may not be the first business you think of when searching for a home improvement megastore.
The 18,000-square-foot building on Grant and Fairview mainly serves as a donation center for surplus or reusable building materials that go toward helping Habitat for Humanity’s volunteers build affordable housing for low-income families.
But it also operates as a retail outlet, selling a lot of the donated stuff the builders don’t use — furniture, appliances, building materials, tools and hardware — at discounted prices. Those funds are then used to finance the nonprofit’s work.
While not exactly a Home Depot or Lowe’s, the HabiStore, along with other community-supported do-it-yourself centers, is where America’s home improvement boom, already waning for the megastores, is sending some welcome aftershocks.
“When the lockdown happened in 2020, everybody was at home and suddenly home projects became a priority,” said Tanna Johnson, the Tucson affiliate’s communications director.
“Certainly there were lots of donations that were coming in during that time, because I think people started going through their garages and closets and, you know, deciding what they could give away.”
But while the bubble appears to have burst for the home improvement megastores (Home Depot and Lowe’s both posted sales drops in May), it’s sending a second wind to DIY markets like thrift and secondhand stores, where people with shelved home makeovers are finding cast-off building materials on the cheap for their still-lingering projects.
“We have a lot of DIY-ers,” Johnson said. “The HabiStore has become sort of this place where people go for inspiration, to discover things they can work with in their own home projects. And sometimes they get lucky and sometimes they don’t. It just depends on what the local community is donating to us.”
The past three years have been challenging — and, in some cases, crushing — for a large number of industries. But for the home improvement business, COVID-19 was uncharacteristically kind.
About three quarters (76%) of U.S. homeowners tackled a home improvement project in 2020, according to the market insights firm Statista, mainly because they were stuck at home with more spare time and, in some cases, stimulus money (or savings from canceled vacations) to spend. Of the homeowners who completed projects in 2020, 44% said they did it that year because they’d been putting off needed repairs or renovations and finally had the time to do it, while 36% said they finally had the money.
Accordingly, the home improvement industry’s value exploded by over $90 billion during that period, from around $407 billion in 2019 to $497 billion in 2020. And the growth continued into 2021, as Americans spent another $538 billion at home improvement stores that year and the U.S. remodeling industry earned $1.1 billion in revenue.
But things have slowed in 2023. Home Depot’s first quarter earnings, posted in May, reported a 4.5% drop in sales at stores, decreasing the market leader’s overall income by 6.4% compared to the first quarter of 2022. Calling it “a year of moderation for the home improvement market,” Home Depot CEO Ted Decker told Wall Street analysts that weather-related challenges in lumber production and higher interest rates and inflation may have also hurt sales.
Mostly, though, Decker attributed the drop to life just returning to some semblance of normalcy. “Obviously, people aren’t spending all their time at home as they did in the prior few years,” he said.
Lowe’s, the second-largest home improvement company in the United States, saw a slightly bigger drop: for the first quarter, Lowe’s reported overall sales decreased by 5.5%. Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison blamed it on a “softer-than-expected consumer demand for discretionary purchases.” CNN put it another way: “The money that was perhaps previously earmarked for spending on fixing and beautifying the home is now being spent more freely on eating out, traveling, shopping and other indulgences.”
Nevertheless, homeowners’ desires to refresh and reorganize their living spaces has not gone away. Johnson says the surge in viewership during the pandemic for Netflix shows like “Minimalism” and “Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo” sparked a home improvement movement that has more to do with mindful meting out than accumulation — a mindset that benefits a community DIY thrift store more than the big home improvement retailers.
“A lot of people just started to really simplify,” she said, “and I think that’s still going on.”
People also discovered and developed their own crafty skills during their pandemic projects that some have opted to continue flexing.
“I think that for those people who were willing to take on home repairs and learn how to do it, the pandemic gave them the time and opportunity to tackle home repairs themselves, and they have most likely continued to do minor repairs on their own,” said Richard Hoffman, Habitat for Humanity Tucson’s home repair supervisor. While Hoffman hasn’t yet seen that translate into a big boost in workers (he says their volunteer labor force was “nonexistent during the pandemic and limped along until recently”), he feels companies are responding to employees returning to the office who still hanker for a hammer.
“We haven’t seen volunteerism return to pre-pandemic levels, but we have found that businesses seem more willing to send groups out to volunteer,” he said. “It is a joy to teach someone how to use a pneumatic staple gun and see their comfort level grow throughout the day.”
Of course, some home improvement work is well beyond the skill set of the newbie weekend workshopper. For those projects, professional remodelers, repairers and installers are still in demand — and perhaps more appreciated than ever.
“I was calling on this guy a couple months ago who’s an engineer,” said Tom Rompel, owner of Desert Solar Energy in Oro Valley. “His wife told me that he’d been talking about putting solar in for years. So, I get out there, I explain the whole thing to him — he loved it. Then he goes, ‘Well, I can do this myself.’ I said, ‘Really? Do you have the CAD system? Can you engineer it so that when you submit it to Tucson Electric Power you can get the permitting? This is a power plant you’re putting on your house, you know!’ And, finally, he says, ‘OK, let’s do it.’
“This is not like putting in a barbecue pit,” Rompel added. “Everything has to be done perfect.”
For solar energy installers, he says the more time people spend at home, the better it is for his industry.
“With a whole lot more people working in their homes, they’re using more electricity, and they’re seeing that on their utility bills,” he said. “Suddenly getting solar panels put in moves up on the priority list.”
Not surprisingly, Rompel considers installing solar energy to be the ultimate home improvement.
“What you’re creating is another provider for your electricity. And you’re the provider!” he said. “That beats remodeling your kitchen.”