Mark Robert Halper Photography

Most of the dramatic changes our industry has experienced in the last three years have been the result of outside forces. We have adapted, but in ways that are reactive and therefore limited. Change can be accidental, but deliberate change is the only way we make progress. There are lots of ways I think the industry needs to change if we are going to make any progress when the economy recovers; here are two to get the party started.

Self-Policing Our Industry

If you can’t remember the last time you did any significant work on your car, that’s because cars no longer have carburetors. When the “check engine” light comes on, we drive to the dealer, who uses a computer to look inside all of the black boxes under the hood to diagnose the problem.

How is it, then, that car owners who can’t work on their $20,000 cars can, as home­owners, cut a hole in a bearing wall in their $200,000 house and install a window they bought at the Big Box? Upside down.

Whether they do the work themselves or they hire Tom, Dick, or Harry to do it for them, is immaterial: if the contractor isn’t licensed and the work isn’t permitted, it shouldn’t take place. About a quarter of U.S. states still don’t require licensing, and most of those that do don’t enforce it very well.

The Renovation, Repair and Painting rule may change that, but I have my doubts because it relies on remodelers to police their own industry. The trade press has been writing about lead paint since 1992, but it took 18 years and a court order for remodelers to comply. You want to be treated like professionals but refuse to be bound, as doctors and lawyers are, by rules of professional conduct. You can’t have it both ways: either you put up with fly-by-night lowballers or you start to police your own industry.

And that doesn’t always mean blowing the whistle. I never tire of Boise, Idaho, remodeler Jim Strite’s story about flagging down a competitor on the highway and inviting him to lunch to explain why both their futures depended on the competitor raising his prices.

Measurement and Training

The energy-contracting equivalent of the black-box mechanics are the home performance contractors, and they’re about to eat your lunch. These companies not only understand building science and train to do the work, they test the house before doing the work, then test again afterward to see if they got it right. How many homeowners will need to see this process in action before they start to ask questions about the bathroom remodel you’re about to price for them?

These days, remodeling houses is way too complex, margins are way too small, and we’re all working way too close to the edge.

At the precipice, we change.

Welcome to the edge.

—Sal Alfano, editorial director, REMODELING.