Indicators continue to suggest, instead of buying a move-up, it's not a bad time to turn your existing home into one -- before the spring thaw awakens hibernating homeowners with the same idea.

Home improvement demand remains soft and thanks to woes in the new home market, material prices are as low as they've been in years, and the building industry is flush with contractors able to do the work.

Even if your contractor can't get to work until you shovel out, negotiating bids and buying supplies now, at today's prices, could not only lock in your place at the front of the line for building when weather permits, you'll also save big money.

Here's the scoop.

  • Demand is down. Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies says the annual rate of remodeling expenditures hit a record peak of $178.2 billion during the second quarter of 2006, but the year finished with only an estimated $168.7 billion spent by home owners in 2006. Even after the second quarter high point, the third and fourth quarters were off sharply causing the year to end with expenditures that were only 1.5 percent more than in 2005.

    "While remodeling activity continues to weaken, the easing should not be nearly as severe as home building," said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the center.

    "Once home sales and prices begin to stabilize, owners will resume their home improvement plans," he added.

    Given some predictions the owner occupied sector is already stabilizing, that means you may not have much chance to cash in on cost savings that typically come with lower demand.

    Even if home prices don't stabilize, as others expect, at least in some regions, home improvements are a way to shore up the value of your home. According to Remodel Magazine, on average, most common remodeling jobs return at least 70 percent of the cost of the work to the value of the home.

  • Cheaper materials. Wood products industry information source Random Lengths said it's "Framing Lumber Composite Price" (a weighted average of 15 key framing lumber items' prices listed in dollars per thousand board feet) was $288 in December 2006, the lowest December price since 2002 when the figure was $276.

    Another measure, Random Lengths' "Structural Panel Composite Price" (a weighted average of 11 key panel items' prices in dollars per thousand square feet) came in at $266 in December, also the lowest level for that measure since December 2002.

    The price declines stem from reduced demand from the new home building industry as well as a more settled Gulf Coast market since Hurricane Katrina blew in more than a year ago.

  • More labor looking for less work. Refugees from the home building industry are setting up camp in the home remodeling field.

    Mark G. Richardson, president of franchiser Case Handyman and Remodeling Services, LLC said, "For the past few years, we have been flying under their radar screen because of the dramatic increase in new home building. As the market continues to shift, we are seeing more inquiries about our franchise operations."

    Richardson says builders shifting resources into remodeling is a smart move because the cost of the switch is minimal given builders have open material supply channels and a ready pool of workers.

    However, the more impersonal business of developing homes is not the same as the more one-on-one remodeling market.

    Homeowners are cautioned, as always, about choosing the right contractor -- seek referrals to licensed and bonded professionals from family, friends, co-workers and other trusted people who recently enjoyed a successful, home value-enhancing remodeling job.

    "The remodeling industry is vastly different from the housing industry. There's a lot of competition from full-time (remodel contractors) in the business. Where as home building is impersonal, remodeling is about building and maintaining relationships with every client," Richardson said.

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