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Homeowners in Billings are tackling remodeling projects at a faster pace than last year, according to some local builders.

The Billings economy has remained steady through the downturn and this spring consumers seem more confident, said Jeremy Freyenhagen, who runs the one-stop design/build remodeling company, Freyenhagen Construction.

“Now the roof has kind of come off,” he said. “We’re getting calls left and right and we’re having a hard time keeping up with the demand.”

Stabilizing or rising home values and lower construction costs are making remodeling projects more economical, according to Remodeling Magazine, which tracks the costs versus the payback when the house sells.

No project ever pays for itself completely, but remodelers can now recapture nearly 61 percent of their costs. That is the first improvement in six years, according to Remodeling Magazine, and is nearly 3 percentage points higher than the low point.

The most cost-effective remodeling projects remain kitchens and master baths.

“Some people are getting rid of their dining rooms. There are just huge islands in kitchens for people to gather,” said Candi Freyenhagen, who works mostly with color coordination.

Most customers want master bedrooms with custom baths, she said, and some baths even have coffee nooks.

The Freyenhagens just returned from a national remodeling conference in New Orleans, La., where the latest upgrade was pop-up appliances controlled by a button.

“The appliances go up and down, so your countertop remains flat and clean,” she said.

Another national trend — sleep divorces where one partner builds a separate master bedroom to get away from a snoring mate — also hasn’t hit Billings.

“But we have fixed up some rooms that were surprisingly nice for a guest bedroom,” Jeremy Freyenhagen said.

Most customers want a sleek and modern look, but with wood and metal highlights, he said.

A Nest Learning Thermostat or other brands of wireless smart thermostats are gaining popularity.

Jeff Scherr, who owns Comfort Heating with his brother, Tony Scherr, called the Nest “the Apple computer” of the thermostat industry because it can learn a family’s habits and adjust the home’s climate accordingly.

“I’m doing a lot of variable speed, high-efficiency furnaces and programmable thermostats. The trend is energy efficiency and indoor air quality,” he said.

White Heating and Air Conditioning owner Curt White also is installing more thermostats that customers can control from their smartphone or computer.

“It can send you email alerts if the temperature in your house gets too high or low or if your humidity gets too high or low,” he said.

Smart thermostats can be installed on a wall with just a couple of wires, and other home amenities are increasingly wireless.

For a quarter-century, Mark Rheaume, co-owner of Radio Shack in the Heights, has run an installation business, now called Billings Electronics. But he is snaking less wire to connect sound and security systems, which are becoming more affordable.

“A four-color camera system with working remote access costs less than $700 installed, where before it would cost $3,000,” he said.

American Appliance Co., which has been in business since 1947, is seeing walk-ins and phone calls double over last year, said kitchen designer Grant Ketcham.

“Everybody wants clean lines, and the big color this year is gray,” he said.

Quartz and granite with undermounted sinks are the best sellers for countertop upgrades, Ketcham said. For a more affordable project, sinks now can be undermounted with high-definition laminate countertops, he said.

Convection ovens and stainless steel appliances remain popular, and a few months ago GE launched a gunmetal gray slate appliance finish that is catching on.

More buyers are requesting induction stoves, which cook by using electromagnets that heat the food and not the burner, Ketcham said.

Pierce Flooring has completed some big commercial projects, including The Northern Hotel, said manager Keith Scott, and residential construction is returning to the pre-recession levels.

“In fact, labor is very difficult to come by. Our installers are booked out a couple months at a time,” Scott said.

Like other local companies, remodeling projects have kept sales going at Rich’s Modern Flooring, a family business in Billings Heights, and now new construction is coming back, said manager/owner Rich Miller Jr.

“We’ve got 30 homes going right now,” he said, with most customers preferring hardwood floors and luxury vinyl flooring.

About half of Freyenhagen’s customers want more space and half want less, Jeremy Freyenhagen said.

Some are building extra rooms or even a separate house for grandparents and grandchildren, so the family can care for aging relatives and gather for the holidays.

The other half wants a smaller, but up-to-date, home, he said.

“I think the people are more concerned about quality than quantity, especially people who are older,” Freyenhagen said. “They want really nice amenities, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be huge.”



Business editor for the Billings Gazette.