Renovation Renaissance Excludes Those Who Need It Most

Daughter using drill machine on wooden plank by mother in backyard

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Like other aspects of the pandemic economy, the remodeling boom has been unequal. The haves built their dream kitchens, while the have-nots put off vital repairs. 

Stuck inside with little opportunity to shop, at least in stores, and nowhere exciting to go, many Americans plowed money into home improvement projects last year, a new report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reveals. While the overall economy shrank 3.5% in 2020, home renovation spending actually grew 3%, as Americans spent $420 billion modifying their houses for the new work-from-home lifestyle.

Meanwhile, lower-income households, hit hard by job losses, faced a different reality. “For many homeowners with low incomes, keeping up with mortgage payments—let alone home maintenance—was especially challenging last year,” the report says. In the best of times, such households spend less on renovations even though they live in older homes that need more work. The money they do spend on home improvement usually goes towards replacing roofs, siding, and windows rather than adding rooms or remodeling kitchens and bathrooms.

In 2019, 12% of all homeowners spent less than $500 on repairs, but in the lowest-income category, the percentage who spent less than $500 was 68%.

“Years of underinvestment may result in unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions,” the report said. “If lower-income households as a group do not recover from the pandemic’s setbacks, their remodeling spending will undoubtedly fall. This decline, in turn, would not only change the mix of home improvement activities and increase industry volatility, but also widen the already large gap between the housing conditions of highest and lowest income households.”