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Pandemic DIY Projects Help Construction Materials Industry Flourish

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: All across the country, there's a lot of construction going on in backyards, basements and spare rooms. As homeowners pour money and energy into their properties, this reaction to the pandemic is sparking good times for some retailers and pushing the costs of materials, such as lumber, through the roof. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: At John Buhr's in Kansas City, it's busy and noisy these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOLS WHIRRING)

MORRIS: The construction projects here span from upstairs down to the basement.

JOHN BUHR: As soon as COVID hit, we needed someplace the kids could play, so we put a playhouse down there first and then found the kids liked it so much that we went ahead and built a living room. And then my wife needed the space to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOLS WHIRRING)

MORRIS: We are standing in an unfinished space above his garage where he's building an office for his wife and an apartment to accommodate grandparents on extended babysitting visits.

BUHR: This all kind of became immediately necessary thanks to COVID.

MORRIS: COVID has sparked an unprecedented building (inaudible) according to Max Anderson, chief economist at porch.com.

MAX ANDERSON: This is all-time high in terms of measured history in the United States. This is the highest level of home improvement spending we've ever seen.

MORRIS: Anderson says demand for home improvement has roughly doubled. Three out of 4 homeowners his company surveyed have completed a major project this year, people like Wanda Taylor in Kansas City are resetting their priorities.

WANDA TAYLOR: My partner and I, we like to travel quite a bit. We like to travel. We like theater. We like live music, and so that's how we spend our money. But then, suddenly, all that stopped. And so if I can't travel, then I chose to put my energy in the place where I am.

MORRIS: Her house, that is. Taylor has turned a little-used basement into a cozy den and pantry. A block away, Astoria Camille, furloughed from a restaurant job last spring, is reclaiming unused space outdoors.

ASTORIA CAMILLE: Used to be a backyard - now it's a summer oasis with a dipping pool that my...

MORRIS: Camille reused a big, round plastic stock tank, the kind cattle normally drink from, instead of buying a new swimming pool.

CAMILLE: And 53 bags of pea gravel because all the stores, with COVID spring, were sold out of the river rock that we wanted.

MORRIS: And as the pandemic drags on, demand for some building supplies keeps mounting.

PATTI PETERS: How can we help you, sir?

MORRIS: At Mack True Value Hardware in Mission, Kansas, employee Patti Peters is having a hard time filling the shelves.

PETERS: Well, I mean, some of the stuff still is gone, and we haven't been able to restock it. Like, all of the fencing - that's been gone since early April.

MORRIS: Around the store, gaps on the shelves signal shortages of everything from seeds to spray paint. Shortages aside, all this demand has been a boon for hardware stores.

NANCY MUSSELWHITE: If you've been watching Home Depot and Lowe's earnings reports, they are killing it this year.

MORRIS: Nancy Musselwhite follows the building materials industry for Principia Consulting. She says hardware sales are up between 25 and 35%.

MUSSELWHITE: We saw a lot of homeowners engaging in what we'll call lumber-intensive DIY during COVID.

MORRIS: An explosion of deck and fence building that more than doubled lumber prices and cleaned out supply - that's forced some homeowners to get resourceful, like John Buhr, who's standing by a car-sized stack of gray boards that he primarily salvaged from dumpsters.

BUHR: I can't find lumber hardly anywhere, so I've been using all this reclaimed lumber for the project in the basement.

MORRIS: So wrenching as this deadly pandemic is for so many people in so many ways, some homeowners see a small silver lining - spending more time with family, cooperating more with neighbors and transforming the place where they live.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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