By Sal Alfano We found out in December that the recession actually started in March. That's old news. Remodelers need more timely information that's closer to home. Remodeling sales in Seattle or Denver don't have much to do with tomorrow's leads in Boston or Atlanta. Remodelers want to know what's happening now in their state, in their county, and around the corner.

The good news is that every company more than a few years old has sales and marketing records that are a much more reliable barometer than national figures. Spend a little time with your own numbers every week and you'll have a pretty good idea of where the local economy is headed.

Here are some questions worth asking:

How many jobs are in the hopper? How does that compare with the same period last year? September 11 postponements are less worrisome than outright cancellations or jobs that simply never materialized. A shorter backlog made up of several smaller jobs could be more secure than having a single large job on the books for the spring.

How many leads have you received this month? People start to think about remodeling projects in the early spring. Your current leads should be about the same as they've been for the past three or four years, maybe better, given that the recent boom has taught consumers to get their project booked early.

How many leads have you closed this month? If you're receiving the same number of leads as last year but converting fewer into sales, it could signal that your market is slowing down. To spot a trend, also compare the current close ratio with that of the past few months.

What was your volume this month? It may be that you have the same number of jobs, but they're getting smaller. That could be important when it comes time to create the year's marketing plan.

You may have other indicators that are unique to your company -- number of leads for a particular kind of job, for example. The point is, the most reliable economic forecasting for your market comes from your own records. It doesn't hurt to look to outside sources -- subs and suppliers can be particularly helpful on this score -- but the best predictor of your company's future work is its past work.

As an idol of my youth once wrote, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Words to live by.

Sal Alfano, Editor-in-Chief