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How to chop remodeling costs when wood prices are high

FILE - In this June 24, 2021 file photo, lumber is piled at a housing construction site in Middleton, Mass. Wood prices have skyrocketed over the last year, leaving would-be home renovators deciding whether to wait out the high costs or move forward on a project that’s more expensive than it would have been a year ago. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Wood costs have skyrocketed over the last year, leaving would-be home renovators to choose between waiting in price purgatory or moving forward and possibly overpaying.

Lumber mills incorrectly predicted that the housing market would crumble under the weight of the pandemic rather than boom as it did, said David Logan, senior economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

That “fatal mistake,” as Logan calls it, led to a supply-demand mismatch that by May of this year had driven the cost of lumber from mills to quadruple what it was in April 2020, according to data from Fastmarkets Random Lengths, a wood products industry trade publication.

As of mid-July, lumber prices dropped to only double their spring 2020 levels, but whether the decline will continue and when lower prices will reach homeowners isn’t yet clear, Logan said.

Here are tips to navigate a home remodel when wood costs are through the roof.

Make room for variability

The recent price dip may seem like a positive sign, but Logan likens a home remodeler’s dilemma to that of a homebuyer: There’s no telling when the time will be right.

“Trying to time the market is likely to cause more angst than having the certainty of getting things underway,” he said.

Logan said if he were renovating, he’d move forward with a large renovation, like a kitchen upgrade or room addition.

If a project requires months of planning and waiting, build room for price and timeline changes into your contract, said Ethan Landis, principal at Landis Architects/Builders in Washington, D.C . That way, you won’t overpay if prices drop before your contractor starts buying, but you can still delay if the project will be too expensive.

Search for alternatives

If a small DIY or good-to-great update could wait a few months, Logan said he’d take the gamble and wait for wood to become more affordable.

“Knowing perfectly well that prices could be higher by the time I do it,” he said. In the meantime, search for recycled, reclaimed or alternative materials. Ty Lindgren brought home leftover wood pallets from work to build a playhouse for his kids.

He estimated that using the pallets instead of high-priced two-by-fours lowered the project’s cost from $1,000 to about $100.

If you don’t have access to extra, unclaimed wood, you can buy it.

Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore has over 900 locations, many of which sell recycled wood or wooden items you can rehabilitate or convert into something like shelving. Some locations let you browse their inventory online.

A local lumber or flooring liquidator may have enough wood to redo the flooring in a small room or on a single floor of your home, said Rebekah Hernandez, a Dallas-based interior designer.

“You can’t be picky, because there’s not many options, but they’re out there,” she said.

Put affordability first

If you choose to delay the project to wait for lower prices or to save up, Hernandez said small changes like a new rug, decorative pillows and updated art may be enough for now.

Out-of-pocket is always the least expensive way to pay for a renovation. But finance the project only if you can get a low interest rate and affordable monthly payments, said Larry Pershing, a Chicago-based certified financial planner.

Pershing said home equity lines of credit have low rates, and you can draw on the money usually over a 10-year period.

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