Construction business changes with the times

2013-12-22T00:00:00Z Construction business changes with the timesBy ALICE MILLER Missoulian The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

MISSOULA — Before construction began its uptick after the Great Recession, James Schafer was busy carving a niche and growing the business he launched in 2007.

It can be difficult to find someone to do small projects, such as a bathroom remodel, who doesn’t have to subcontract, and that’s where StraightEdge comes in, Schafer said.

“When people would hit dead ends for finding someone to do a particular project, we’d come in and do the project for them basically turn-key from start to finish,”Schafer said.

The owner of StraightEdge Construction initially set out on his own as a builder, with his wife managing the books.

Now, he employs three others and several more people seasonally to keep up with the demand for remodeling and renovation work in the Missoula area.

“I’ve noticed just slow growth,” Schafer said, adding that skilled trade workers have longer delays before they have the time to take on additional projects and products are tougher to get.

With existing home sales steady, Schafer and his crew have been busy making fixes just prior to or just after a sale.

People don’t want separated kitchens and living rooms anymore, he said. Instead, they want large, open living areas.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere than it was when a lot of these houses were built, so we’re making them more functional for today’s uses,” he said.

The coming year looks promising for business, Schafer said.

“It’s just been pretty steady, especially with, I think, consumer confidence coming back right now,” Schafer said.

Several projects are lined up for the spring already and, in the meantime, the crew will focus on keeping up with advances in the industry, he said.

In addition, he hopes to pick up some bigger, long-term projects in addition to smaller projects people typically save up for instead of getting financing.

“And it looks like some signs that there will be (bigger projects), with interest rates still being low and with people who have been sitting on the sidelines starting to spend money on their houses,” Schafer said.

Demand for new construction also is increasing in the Missoula area, said Gene Mostad, owner of Mostad Construction Inc.

“The last year’s definitely been a more positive experience, especially in the past 12 months. We definitely see more people wanting to build,” said Mostad, whose business does residential and commercial construction as well as remodels.

The increases come in waves and are impacted by the real estate market for existing housing, but overall the past year has been good and Mostad said he hopes 2014 will be as well.

“We don’t really want the market to explode or anything, but we do want it to be steadier than it has been in the past,” he said.

When the recession hit, Mostad said, he had to downsize his business and repeat business and referrals helped the company weather the downturn. No longer does Mostad develop land in anticipation of building.

“We still need to see the raw land costs of the land come down so if we do offer lots we can offer them at a reasonable, competitive price,” he said.

In the past six months, though, he said he has hired three employees, bringing his staff to nine.

The demand for new homes isn’t just from Missoulians.

“We are seeing some people moving into Missoula,” whether it be for professional or retirement reasons, Mostad said.

“As everyone starts to feel better about the economy nationally, the people, they start going forward with their plans to relocate,” he said.

Whether they build in the city or in the county, buyers are still extremely money conscious, Mostad said, adding most are looking for energy- and space-efficient homes with large, open living areas.

Many homebuyers want low-maintenance residences and townhomes have been particularly popular, he said.

Mostad said he won’t get a good sense for the upcoming year until the construction season kicks off in the spring, but things appear to be on track for growth. “We’re cautiously optimistic about the future.”

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