After this month, people who relied on the Census Bureau for in-depth information on the money spent on residential remodeling in the U.S. will have a gap to fill.
May 1 was the final release date for the C-50 data series, which reported on residential improvement and repair expenditures. The Census relied on two surveys to publish the C-50; the Consumer Expenditure (CE) survey (administered by the Department of Labor), and the Survey of Residential Alterationsand Repairs (SORAR). Due to budget constraints, the Census eliminated the SORAR and, while the Department of Labor will continue to conduct the CE, the Census will no longer do the data massaging necessary to publish the C-50.
However, according to a paper on its Web site, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (JCHS) recognizes the C-50 data as "the only publicly released national series available on a quarterly basis." Therefore, JCHSdesigned its Leading Indicator for Remodeling Activity (LIRA; the most recent LIRA is on page 24) to lead, or predict, the C-50.
Even if the LIRA and the C-50 data do not accurately represent the actual size of the market, they have utility in that they provide a basis for comparison. "It [was] a consistent data source that we [could] rely on," says Mike Bozich, vice president of market development at adhesive and sealant manufacturer Henkel.
The JCHS' Kermit Baker is hopeful that the LIRA will survive, thanks to a number for residential remodeling to owner-occupied housing unit generated by the CE and published as part of the C-30 data series on total construction spending. But the C-50 was more than just one lump number; it provided details about the money spent on home improvements that researchers used to observe industry trends from the representative sample. "It [was] the only way to know what the do-it-yourself versus professional split [was]," says Richard Johnston, senior research analyst at HIRI.
Baker has similar concerns. "There isn't going to be any consistent data on the composition of spending," he says. "Anyone tracking national industry trends is going to be in huge trouble." That includes manufacturers such as Henkel, who Bozich says used the C-50 to inform its product development.
"If we [saw] trends coming out of the data, we could adjust expenses toward research and development accordingly," Bozich says. Contractorsmay suffer as a result, he adds, as manufacturers will be less well-equipped to serve their needs.
DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH A Census presentation at a recent HIRI conference acknowledged some of the shortcomings of the data, including low response rate and a relatively higherror margin. Needing to slash its budget, it stands to reason that the bureau would cut the least reliable data first.
The Census won't consider resuming the SORAR ? or, more likely, a redesigned survey that goes after the same information ? and the publication of the C-50 until fiscal year 2011. The information gap this decision leaves is a difficult one to fill, but Johnston more or less echoes the sentiments of the industry when he says, "We're going to have to scramble to find another way."