As more people find themselves working, entertaining, schooling and relaxing at home, remodelers are meeting the demand for a more functional living space.
If there’s one thing Brian Hogan’s clients are requesting more than ever lately, it’s outdoor spaces. The owner of Hogan Design & Construction (HDC), in Geneva, has spent 20 years remodeling and building homes, and he says there’s never been a busier time for outdoor living spaces.
“We’ve done more pool houses and she-shed type projects, porticos, pergolas, screen rooms, outdoor kitchens and lots of pools,” he says. “The past two years we’ve had more pools than we did in the past 20 years.”
So, what’s the interest in outdoor living? People are spending more time at home these days, and their remodeling projects reflect the changing demands they have of their abodes. Entertainment in open-air environments is top of mind for many suburban clients.
“Everybody’s been like, ‘Can you have it done by the Kentucky Kerby?’ or, ‘Can you have it done by Memorial Day or the Fourth of July?’” Hogan says. “People are having friends and family over more. It’s like they’re making up for lost time.”
The outdoors aren’t the only part of the home where we’re looking to upgrade for our changing lifestyles. Everything from the kitchen and bathroom to the mudroom, home office and basement buildout are changing to meet our new habits.
Rooms of Interest
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, kitchens and bathrooms were typically a top demand. These spaces were heavily used, and a good showpiece made a strong impression when it came to selling the home.
“But since families are now spending more time at home due to lifestyle changes, we are seeing other areas of the home become areas of interest, as well,” says Anna Leimann, a designer at Advance Design Studio, in Gilberts. “They’re looking for smart storage as well as visual interest in other areas of the home because of the amount of time they’re spending there.”
In general, homeowners are looking to clean up and declutter their spaces. It’s especially true in the mudroom, where clutter accumulates quickly. Storage lockers, cubbies and benches help to keep everyone organized.
“You’ve got your kids’ backpacks and mittens and gloves, and you don’t want them just strewn about on the floor,” says Leimann. “So, we’re seeing a lot of closed-in storage for those kinds of things.”
Storage and decluttering are also in high demand in the kitchen, especially as people find themselves cooking more at home. Leimann learned to make sourdough with her extra time at home, and she finds many clients have had similar experiences, where they need more pantry storage for cooking equipment and sundries. Appliance garages contain clutter, while larder cabinets house a variety of functions and base tray cabinets accommodate cookie sheets, muffin tins and flat pans.
“People are definitely tired of seeing their toaster or blender out on the countertop. They’d rather hide it away somewhere,” says Leimann. “We’re not doing lazy susans as much anymore, and instead we have a new cabinet where shelves pull out, so you won’t lose things that fall in the back.”
As for basements, they’re proving to be a blank canvas where many functions coalesce. Mini-bars and kitchens, home offices, extra bedrooms, in-law suites, study rooms and more can co-exist given enough space.
Where basements and kitchens used to blend many zones of activity together, Leimann finds families are more willing to throw up a few walls these days.
“With everyone at home, the kids were studying or had at-home learning, the parents were working, and we’re seeing that families are needing that divided space,” she adds. “The parents had to work while the kids were doing school, and everyone needed their individual spaces.”
Hogan has seen the same effect, and he believes it’s a big driver behind an increased demand for home offices and extra living spaces over the garage. Guest suites, artist studios, multipurpose rooms or home offices can function well when detached from the rest of the home.
“Most of the client demands focus around extra space,” Hogan says. “People want extra space. So, that’s the ‘pain’ that drives them to remodel. They just don’t have enough room to spread out or work. Or, they have a situation where the parents are on Zoom and the kids are walking through and dogs are barking.”
Outdoor spaces, particularly screened-in porches, offer a place to work, to relax or to entertain, and accommodations like built-in fireplaces help to make the space a year-round environment. Hogan says he’s also seeing more requests for the “phantom screen,” a retractable screen that makes this room even more adaptable.
“When you walk up, it just looks like an ordinary covered porch, but then you push a button and the screens come down automatically like a garage door,” he says. “That’s been a popular one lately.”
Kelsey Bechtel and Carmen Haddaway, designers at Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock, find that kitchens and bathrooms are top of mind for their clients. When it comes to the bathroom, updates aren’t about changing lifestyles so much as the obsolescence of a space.
Jacuzzi tubs are on their way out, replaced by a bigger shower with a bench, or perhaps a freestanding soaker tub. Bathrooms that have survived as long as 50 years or more are giving out.
“I’ve got quite a few people in their 60s, 70s or 80s who haven’t done anything to their home since they purchased it, and now they’re thinking of selling in the next five years or so before they retire and move to Florida,” says Bechtel. “Now, they’re at a stage where they’re like, ‘I need to do something about my bathroom and kitchen.’”
They’re also looking to boost the functionality and aesthetic appeal of their kitchens, where Bechtel estimates nearly 80% of clients want some form of undercabinet lighting.
“And they’re spending extra money to do lights in the top cabinets,” adds Haddaway. “They’ll spend a little extra money for glass in the cabinet doors. It brings a lot to your kitchen.”
Home offices remain top of mind for many people as they continue working at home. While they’ll most often use a spare bedroom or part of the basement, Bechtel and Haddaway are also finding workstations tucked into closets, dining rooms, butler’s pantries, or the edge of a kitchen island. A quality remodeling firm will use cabinetry, countertops and other accents to build workstations, storage and bookshelves to accommodate the homeowner’s needs.
“Some people are doing little alcoves,” says Bechtel. “They’re doing a mini work-from-home office and gift-wrapping station in their bedroom because they have this massive room and they don’t know what to do in this one corner. So, they’re like, ‘Well, we can keep the kids’ devices here and charge them overnight, and keep gift wrapping stuff here, or if I need to do crafts or work from home I can do that, too.’”
Across the Chicago suburbs, home remodelers are seeing a distinctive departure from one long-lasting trend.
“Gray is finally starting to fade out a little bit,” says Bechtel. She sees the longtime color choice giving way to more natural colors, like soft greens, beiges and dark grays that have a warm feel to them. The color isn’t going away entirely, though.
“You’ll still see it with a glaze, or maybe some distressing, or a gray stain instead of a paint. But it’s not everything-gray,” she says. “There’s more of a mixture now.”
Leimann finds that pops of blues, greens and yellows help to add some cheerfulness to a home and introduce a calming effect.
“Homes are the place to relax with natural colors like whites, beiges and warm grays,” she says. “We’ve seen a rise in pops of color and texture, so hopefully this is a glimpse of the optimism people are feeling.”
Blue is a rising choice in cabinet colors, but it’s rare that someone fills an entire kitchen with blue cabinets. Rather, a blue island provides an accent and touch of interest. In the mudroom, however, Leimann finds homeowners are a little less restrained.
“A lot of homeowners are nervous about taking the plunge and turning their whole kitchen blue, but we also see the color in backsplash tiles, adding a pop of color so your whole space isn’t that strong color,” Leimann says. “Use it as an accent, in the tile or in accessories, like in plants and vases. They’re easier items to swap out if you get tired of the color.”
Texture, too, influences the mood of a room. Herringbone designs and encaustic tiles add a little flair in a kitchen or bathroom. Some tiles even have some waviness or roughness to them.
“We’re doing a bathroom right now with a wavy tile,” she says. It looks like waves on the shower wall.”
Meanwhile, in the cabinetry, laminated doors replicate a wood look and texture but they have a clean, contemporary style that’s catching on in the city. The “slab” style eschews traditional recessed panels for a simple, flat look.
“The slab is just flat, no framing or anything,” says Bechtel.
With outdoor designs, fire is the big request.
“Outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, fire effects – especially where you have a pool and six or seven spots where it looks like you have planters of fire,” says Hogan. “Everyone likes fire this year.”
Planning for Pain
As much as the pandemic changed our own lifestyles, it’s also been an unusually busy time for remodelers. Contractors are spread thin, designers are in high demand, products are taking longer to ship, and costs are rising – generally about 25% over the past two years, remodelers say. Before taking the plunge, homeowners are wise to prepare as much as they can. Patience is a must.
“People are waiting sometimes up to eight weeks just to talk to someone who does what we do,” says Hogan. “And that’s just to have them come out and look at your job. That’s really different. We’ve been pretty busy, and in fact it’s been nonstop for us for two years.”
Typically, HDC clients don’t sign a bid until they’ve gone through the entire design process. Anymore, customers and designers have to be flexible within that process, ready to purchase certain materials – appliances and tile in particular – before plans are complete.
The planning process typically takes about two months, says Hogan. Then, it may take as much as four to six months to receive cabinets. Appliances can take as much as a year to arrive.
“Tile is one of the first things you pick, so you can build your bathroom around it,” says Hogan. “If you’re doing an eight-week design, in theory by the end of that time that tile could be out of stock, they might not produce it anymore or they might have a production time of three months from now. So, if you don’t order it when you pick it, you’re going to be ordering something that looks like it.”
Landscaping crews are also busy this time of year, so outdoors jobs also take several months before the work begins.
“Order as quickly as you can if you find what you like,” says Hogan.
Meanwhile, prices continue to climb. Lumber is more expensive than it was a few years ago, cabinet prices are jumping and contractors facing a shortage of labor are charging more. It’s essential to stay flexible with the project budget.
“Last year was the year of price increases throughout our industry,” says Leimann. “Whereas a hallway bathroom before the pandemic averaged anywhere from $15,000 up to $23,000 including labor and materials, we’re now seeing that project start at $23,000 and go up to $33,000 or more.”
That’s still good news for someone who expects to sell their home soon. Rising home sales prices can lead to a good return on investment.
“With the housing market booming right now, homeowners are seeing nice returns from their remodels,” says Leimann. “How long this will last, though, is anyone’s guess.”
Cabinet manufacturers can still take 18 to 20 weeks to deliver their product, so the team at Advanced Design Studio have introduced a new custom cabinetry line that promises faster turnarounds and greater flexibility in the finished product. The company’s Artisan Cabinetry line is fully custom and produced just down the street from the Gilberts headquarters.
“We wanted to be in control of the quality we were putting into our cabinetry,” says Leimann. “We have three quarter-inch cabinet boxes and soft-close drawers standard, and we can paint, stain and offer lots of options when it comes to door styles.”
Trust the Professionals
Given the unpredictability in today’s home improvement market, a little bit of homework and some expert guidance can go a long way. Before you visit a designer or contractor, know what you’re getting into, say Bechtel and Haddaway. Start by finding styles and pictures of things you like. Pay attention to your everyday use of the space and what needs to change.
“Just write down your daily activities and what bothers you about what you have right now,” says Bechtel. “What do you wish was easier, or what would be more help? Where do you need help doing something more efficiently? And then budget.”
As you crunch your numbers, expect to pay more than you think you will, she adds, and know how much is too much.
Don’t forget to consider an optimal timeframe – and remain flexible as conditions change. Professional designers have the experience and the industry connections to help clients achieve their desired outcome, despite any hiccups that may happen along the way.
Just as important to the budget is knowing what you’ll do when the crews arrive. If you’re getting a new home office, do you have an alternative space you can use while crews are on site? If it’s a kitchen, have you accounted for the cost of food you can’t cook while the kitchen is torn apart? Do you need to live somewhere else for a week or two?
And, no matter how stressful the experience is, be nice to your designer and contractors. They’re juggling many projects at the same time, and their vendors are experiencing the same delays and frustrations as their clients.
That’s why selecting a good partner can make all the difference in a home remodel.
“Good planning makes or breaks the experience, the budget, the quality of the outcome, the continuity,” says Hogan. “It’s all in the planning. When you do good, thorough planning you don’t have to rush it. Rushing isn’t worth it. You’ll just end up paying for it if you do.”