When it comes to figuring out what’s driving consumer behavior at any given time, the staff at Iconoculture are experts. REMODELING has had Iconoculture representatives speak at events like the Remodeling Leadership Conference, where they offered information on macrotrends that remodelers can leverage in their sales efforts. By knowing what homeowners are thinking, building professionals can better offer them the products, services, and design flexibility they want to reinvent their homes.

At the 2009 International Builder’s Show, Robin Avni, Iconoculture senior director and consumer strategist for home and garden, took center stage for the second year in a row at a press conference held by Pella Windows & Doors. With the hurting economy as the conceptual backdrop for all of IBS, Avni said, “there still is no place like home, but the reality is that you’re touched by these economic conditions, no matter what your status.”

Even those individuals we see as elite, such as the new First Family, are realigning their new life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in ways that many regular Americans have. “It’s a real moving day for the Obamas,” Avni says. “They moved into existing housing, they’re establishing a work-from-home lifestyle, and with the mother-in-law moving in, they’re using their $150,000 remodeling budget to create a multigenerational living space.”

Talkin’ ‘Bout my G-g-g-generator
Not just for crunchy-granola tree-huggers anymore, Avni says a major trend among a wide range of consumer demographics is to live “Off the Grid.” While banks and employers have failed them, homeowners are looking for anything that will let them take back control in their lives, and that includes saving energy in their homes.

As such, sales of whole-house and portable generators have risen, along with tankless water heaters and rain barrels. Additionally, “you’ll see consumers postponing major-appliance purchases, except for deep freezers,” Avni says. Though perhaps not quite as energy-efficient, freezers give homeowners a place to store food as they hunker down for this long winter’s nap. Freezers, she adds, are the only major appliance category in which sales have shown an increase.

“Green homebuilding is growing, but remains a largely uncharted, unregulated morass of guidelines, incentives, programs, and products,” Avni says. A truth that many building professionals continue to struggle with. But even as builders and remodelers work to determine how their companies will define and apply green building and business practices, homeowners are doing their own research and making their own lifestyle changes. Iconoculture says the demographics most in-tune with this trend include suburban Gen-X moms, LOHAS-living consumers (that is, “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability”), and cost-conscious Boomers.

No Place Like Home
As consumers work to make their homes work for them, Avni says they’re also spending more time at home than in the past. “They’re finding comfort in the nest, and also in the community,” Avni says. “That community doesn’t just include their neighbors down the block. It also echoes the increase we’re seeing in the use of social networking sites to connect with existing friends and to reach out and make new connections.”

From a remodel standpoint, Avni says this “homing instinct” is feeding consumers’ innate desires to rebuild, restore, and remodel. “Whether it’s aspiration ingenuity or just an unwavering ability to pick up the pieces, consumers consider their lives an ongoing improvement project,” she says. “They are ever hopeful, but these days, they aim to achieve balance by blending in a hearty dose of practicality, while seeking the happiness, comfort, and fulfillment they desire in their homes.”

As a result, conspicuous consumption has gone by the wayside and homeowners are instead taking on an attitude of “pragmatic pursuit” when they do upgrade their living spaces. More remodeling clients are choosing to work within their homes’ existing footprints, rather than expand (which also feeds the energy-saving “off the grid” mindset). Unfinished basements have become prime remodeling targets to create cozy rec-room living spaces to feed that sense of family and community. And, as has been the case for so long, homeowners continue to look at their kitchens as central to their homes and lives. With money tight, homeowners are cooking more and eating out less, and the “modern farm” kitchen gives a feeling of warmth and comfort without sacrificing amenities.

Iconoculture says the consumer segments buying into this trend the most include child-rearing grandparents, boomerang millenials, and tech-savvy teens.

I Did it My Way
In terms of who the buyers are, Avni says employed Millenials, or those post-Gen-X consumers aged 13 to 31, are in the “sweetspot for homebuying” in the coming years. Members of Generation X (age 32 to 42) are choosing to stay put in their current homes instead of trading up, and equity-shocked Baby Boomers are doing the same. While that 43- to 61-year-old group’s aging-in-place approach used to mean “…but not the same place,” now it does, Avni says. Boomers are more inclined to add first-floor baths and other amenities to their current homes now than they were before.

However, while it appears that remodeling work will be available in all three demographics, Iconoculture notes a third trend that could impact the number of projects available: Do-It-Yourself. “Many consumers, armed with an informed design aesthetic, an increased skill level, and tools both online and off, are ditching designers and getting in touch with their inner artist,” Avni says.

The good news is that, for this most part, the DIY trend is geared toward redecorating as opposed to remodeling. Personalization, creativity, and artisanship are taking over. People want to stay in and craft, but remodelers, builders, and architects, will still be needed to handle major design changes and installations, and could have opportunities in repairing or re-working homeowners’ DIY projects-gone-bad.

Whatever way they choose to do it, Iconoculture believes 2009 will be a year of “home-sweet-hideaway” as consumers seek shelter from economic, politicial, and personal storms. The firm adds that businesses and brands need to show consumers how to achieve their realigned goals by adding a hearty dose of reality to their messaging, and helping people balance their desires with their pocketbooks and personal preferences. The idea of upgrading the existing home is replacing the concept of trading up, and remodelers can capitalize on that mentality.