CHICAGO — After spending months working from home in tight quarters with her two college-aged children, Katie Wrobel began to worry about how the three would make it through winter confined in the same living space.
That’s when Wrobel began to see potential in a neglected part of her Evanston property: a 100-year-old detached garage.
“I was inspired by the garage parties of my youth,” said Wrobel, who’s in her 50s. “I had to do something because if they were home for extended periods of time during the winter and had no access to outdoor socializing … Well, then, it was going to be bad for everyone.”
Wrobel, a self-employed content creator who edits videos and marketing material, wants to use the updated space as a room where her family can safely socialize and work as colder weather limits options for spending time outdoors. The project will cost around $25,000, but it’s worth it, she said.
“In life, when you don’t have control over things — like with COVID — it’s really nice to be able to create something that gives you the agency you want and lights you up a bit,” Wrobel said.
Residential remodeling companies in the Chicago area are seeing a boom in business from people wanting to spruce up garages and other overlooked spaces during the health crisis.
The rush in business is welcomed by contractors who saw business come to a standstill earlier this year as customers were hesitant to invite workers into their homes amid uncertainty over the coronavirus.
In April, around 60% of residential contractors nationwide reported a steep drop-off in business, according to a National Association of Home Builders survey. By mid-October, more than half of the contractors surveyed said business had rebounded.
“The surprising effect is how quickly people found workarounds and how quickly everything bounced back,” said Paul Emrath, an economist at the association.
Emrath attributes the remodeling industry’s recovery, in part, to the fact that housing prices haven’t taken a hit, as they did during the 2008 financial crisis. Homeowners with equity in their properties can take a loan to finance new projects, he said.
“If you don’t have a lot of money you probably can’t afford a new home and probably can’t find a new home because the existing market is so tight,” Emrath said. “So you have to stay where you are, and if you want to improve where you’re living, that leaves you with remodeling.”
Social distancing restrictions prompted Amy and Joe Nedoss to take a second look at how they used the driveway at their Evanston home. The space, sandwiched between the house and garage, now has a cedar deck and living area, complete with outdoor heaters, where the family of four can safely socialize with neighbors, work and e-learn. The project, which included substantial drainage work, cost around $35,000, said Amy Nedoss, 50, a marketing director.
“The best part is that it gives the kids a way to socialize with their friends, but outdoors,” said Nedoss, who has a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. “Our garage door lifts up and a movie screen comes down so the kids can sit on the deck and watch movies with friends.”
Amy Nedoss said the project has allowed the family to maintain its lifestyle amid the pandemic.
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“It broke my heart to think we weren’t going to be able to see people once the weather turns. We tried to figure out how we can still be with friends and family into the winter,” she said.
The desire to have a safe place to gather with friends this winter is something Vincent Sliwa, owner of Chicago-based A-Windy City Garage, has heard from many of his customers. Sliwa’s had a substantial increase in requests for french doors and overhead “party doors” on garage remodels, which customers say they want to use for ventilation while entertaining.
The spike in demand coupled with materials shortages has meant some higher prices.
As the virus hit the U.S. in the spring, lumber companies like West Fraser and Canfor curtailed production, expecting the virus to drive demand down, said Deni Koenhemsi, principal economist at IHS Markit.
“The opposite happened, with construction bouncing back and an incredible demand in the improvement sector,” Koenhemsi said.
Prices for softwood lumber on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange tripled between April and September but have since moderated.
Nick Lawson, an Evanston-based contractor and landscaper, said he has had trouble securing lumber and other supplies, like faucets, countertops, and imported materials. His business, Lawson Properties, has received so many requests for patio and garage remodels this summer and fall that he has jobs booked into the spring.
“I don’t know if it’s a Midwest thing, but most people here do not build or develop the outside of the house,” said Lawson, 50, who is originally from Australia. “I did a few of these projects this summer and whammo — everyone wants one. It’s great.”
But working in and around people’s homes, and with different subcontractors, during a pandemic comes with risks. To keep his family safe, Lawson began sleeping in the basement and decided to work only with subcontractors he knows.
“It’s a strange existence,” he said. “I keep my contact with everybody to a minimum, but just by sheer weight of numbers, I worry. I’m in Home Depot every day.”
Contractor Bryan Slowick, of Libertyville, said one of his employees tested positive for the virus a few months ago, causing Slowick to temporarily close his business, BDS Design Build Remodel, and quarantine. After reopening, it took customers time to get comfortable allowing Slowick and his team back onto their properties.
“We also had all of our customers say we don’t want you in our house, because there was so much unknown about the virus in the spring,” he said. “Now that the unknown is gone, and we understand the virus a little bit better, we are climbing ourselves back to try to be profitable this year.”
Slowick has put safety protocols in place, like using barriers, masks, and signs. He also is taking steps to limit his exposure to people outside of work. Prior to the pandemic, Slowick visited his local XSport gym four or five days a week but stopped in an abundance of caution.
This fall, he started remodeling his own garage for use as a home gym space. He built the detached structure five years ago and until now used the space for storage and parking. Once complete, the space will have a squat rack, chin-up bar, weight bench and a rack for barbells and dumbbells.
Not everyone has the money for grand projects. There’s also been high demand for smaller ticket items like outdoor fire pits and heaters, according to Tony Lemma, regional vice president for Home Depot’s Chicago area.
In November, Google searches originating in the Chicago area for outdoor heaters were seven times higher compared with the same time last year.
At Overstock.com, sales of outdoor heaters have more than tripled and fire pit sales are up nearly 100% compared with last year, said spokeswoman Megan Herrick. .
Having an outdoor space to socialize was a motivating factor for Matt and Casey Kelley, who during the summer spruced up a 20-by-35-foot dirt space next to their home in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. The area now has a deck and putting green, with artificial turf, where the couple and their 3-year-old daughter can visit with friends and neighbors.
The renovation lasted from June to September because of delays in securing scarce supplies, like lumber. The project cost about $22,000, which was partially paid for out of the family’s vacation fund since traveling isn’t an option this year.
“We said, well, now is the time to make sure our space allows us some respite and maybe allows us to get some kind of peace that you would typically get from returning on a vacation,” said Matt Kelley, 42.
The Kelleys run Case Integrative Health, a West Town medical practice where Casey is the medical director and Matt runs business operations. The practice has treated a number of people with lasting COVID-19 symptoms and chronic conditions who are at high risk of adverse health outcomes should they contract the virus.
Knowing they have a safe space to spend time with friends and recharge is a comfort, particularly as the Chicago area heads into the winter, Matt Kelley said.
“Everyone has a high level of tension right now,” he said. “We’re staring down winter, cold and flu season, and seeing new COVID records each day. We’re looking forward to the times we can be outside, not spending all day in an office.”