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If you're looking for a bright spot in the U.S. economy, talk with someone in the home remodeling business. You will hear how there are not enough carpenters and tradespeople to handle all the work. That's thanks to rising home prices and low interest rates. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Nathaniel May survived the housing crash, but just barely. He's a general contractor who does home renovations in the Boston area. And even just a few years ago, he and his partner were feeling a little desperate.
NATHANIEL MAY: We were both working out of the back of our truck doing handyman projects to pay the bills. At that time, I was renting a house. And I worked out a deal with my landlord to reshingle about 50 percent of the house in exchange for rent. You know, we...
ARNOLD: So you're, like, bartering just for a place to live, like, four years ago.
MAY: Right, exactly.
ARNOLD: Today, though, May is back in business - and in a big way. We're standing in a nice, new kitchen. May's company Aurora Custom Builders just finished renovating it for $140,000.
TERI LARSON: I think it looks spectacular.
ARNOLD: The homeowner Teri Larson says, after the crash, she didn't have enough equity in this house to get a loan to pay for a renovation. So for years, her family was knocking into each other in a very tiny and badly designed kitchen with fake wood plastic countertops.
LARSON: It was horrible. We had refrigerator doors banging into dishwasher doors, and two people couldn't move around in here. And it was hideous.
ARNOLD: But with home prices and sales on the rise, millions of American homeowners are now fixing up their houses again. Nathaniel May says he's actually got so much work he's turning down good projects, in part because he can't find any more good carpenters to hire.
MAY: We get probably two to three requests to look at projects a week right now would be my guess. And most of them are good quality leads because they're coming from referrals, that sort of thing.
ARNOLD: Actually, as big as the housing boom was at the peak, homeowners are now spending even more on renovations than they were back then. Nino Sitchinava is an economist with the renovation and design company Houzz.
NINO SITCHINAVA: The home renovation market has reached its pre-recession peak and is currently estimated at $324 billion.
ARNOLD: Sitchinava says that level of annual spending and demand is creating jobs and pushing up wages for carpenters, electricians and plumbers. She says Houzz has about 1 million active home renovation professionals associated with it and that many say they'd be hiring if they could find skilled workers.
SITCHINAVA: Four out of 5 of the remodelers on Houzz have reported that their labor shortages are either moderate or severe in their area.
ARNOLD: That's not so surprising, given how bad the housing bust was. Abbe Will is an analyst with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. She says that the construction industry overall, peak to trough, lost 2 million workers.
ABBE WILL: They either, you know, went to another industry altogether, retired, you know, potentially went home to their native country. So we lost a ton of construction workers.
ARNOLD: And, Will says, there aren't enough young people getting into the skilled trades, despite good paying jobs. She says the industry is grappling with how to attract and train more young people.
WILL: Women, too. Women make up such a small share of the construction industry, you know, roughly 2 percent.
ARNOLD: So right now, home equity loan rates are low. Homeowners are feeling more confident about spending money, and all of that's a good sign for the economy.
WILL: So yeah, it's a really good sign.
ARNOLD: But good luck finding a contractor who's not too busy to take on your project. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
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