Mark Robert Halper Photography

About this time of year in 1981, I was finishing a big, complicated residential remodeling project for which I served as an independent project manager. The job had stretched to nearly 18 months, during which time I gained 10 years of experience, and it felt like it, too, largely because the independently wealthy micro-manager–type owner spent all day on site and called me at home almost every night. I’ll say that again: She called me almost every night. For months after the project was completed, I cringed every time the phone rang.

I didn’t suffer from that neurosis very long because once the project was over, the phone stopped ringing altogether. At first I thought it was because I had been out of circulation for so long that past clients and new prospects figured I didn’t do small jobs anymore. As it turned out, that would have been a best-case scenario. The silent phone was actually sending a message that said: “While You Were Out … the economy tanked, and there won’t be any work for a while.”

“A while” turned out to be almost two years, during which time I reverted to the M.O. of the years when I was still learning the trade, working solo on small stuff or teaming up with another carpenter when the work called for more than one man. It was not an easy time and I was unprepared for it. Being out of circulation had cut me off from my marketplace, but I had also missed the signs that the market was changing.

I’m telling this story now because, although it’s plain as day that the same thing is happening today in most parts of the country, there are some remodelers who still have some work and believe that this recession won’t affect them. In the last month or so, I have heard from contractors whose backlog has literally disappeared, almost overnight. In one case, a year’s worth of work, $3 million in all, vanished inside of four days. In another, seven homeowners called, one after the other, all in the same week to cancel or postpone their projects — a total revenue loss of $700,000.

Our magazine and Web sites are full of advice on how to survive the coming year. It’s not all doom and gloom out there, and it’s important to stay positive and take advantage of any opportunities that arise. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that this market is going to change anytime soon. It’s a whole new ball game. Regardless of what’s happening right now in your business, you need to take a look around, if you haven’t already, and prepare yourself for what could happen, if it hasn’t already. Don’t wait for a “While You Were Out” message.