Final tallies on the destruction due to October's wildfires in Southern California were not available as of press time, but estimates in early November ranged from 1,500 to 2,500 homes destroyed, with more than a half-million acres burned.
Unfortunately, residents of the affected areas are all too familiar with that kind of destruction. In 2003, the so-called Cedar Fire — like this year's fires, fueled by Santa Ana winds — burned 280,278 acres and claimed 2,232 homes. Remodelers in the area are expecting many of the same conditions this year as they had in the aftermath of the 2003 fires: contractors appearing suddenly to make a quick buck rebuilding houses. “In 2003, everyone thought that they could start a company overnight,” says Todd Jackson, owner of Jackson Design & Remodeling, in San Diego. Additionally, the area can expect to see an influx of companies from outside the region, something that is fairly typical in the wake of most natural disasters.
To more well-established remodeling companies that may also view the disaster as an opportunity to gain more business, Jackson urges caution. “A lot of my competition thought this was their big ticket,” Jackson says of the prevailing attitude in 2003. Jackson says that many remodelers spent months “practically working for free,” receiving nominal payments from insurance companies in exchange for producing estimates. Those contractors mistakenly assumed that the estimates would turn into jobs. “Most of those people got nothing out of that work,” Jackson says.
One reason is because many homeowners found that they hadn't kept their insurance up to date, and couldn't afford to rebuild. Under-insurance should be less of a problem during this rebuild because many homeowners learned from others' plights four years ago, and updated their insurance policies.
Another reason is that insurance values are based on home builders' costs, and a remodeler is likely to be significantly more expensive. With that in mind, remodelers looking to enter the new-home market should avoid bidding on work, says Paul Winans, a facilitator for industry consultant Remodelers Advantage and the founder of Oakland, Calif., remodeling company Winans Construction. “If you want these types of jobs, contact architects you've enjoyed working with in the past.”
Winans speaks from experience. Wild-fires aren't unique to Southern California, and Winans was a remodeler in the Bay Area when the Oakland Firestorm burned 2,843 homes in the fall of 1991. Due to a national economic recession at the time, remodeling work was scarce, Winans says, and that led him to take on some new-home projects.
Brad Schuber, chief designer at Arthur Bradley Design/Build, in San Diego, has a different perspective. His company is seeking out rebuilding jobs, and plans to charge only for design work, not for bidding. His reasoning is partly philanthropic. “Losing your house is overwhelming,” he says. “It feels good to help these people.” To be fair, his company is well-positioned to handle custom homes — teardowns leaving just a single wall constitute much of the company's normal remodeling business. Other than a slight change in their marketing language, Schuber says that the biggest adjustment is keeping up with the daily release of information about programs and procedures to help expedite the rebuild. “It's a lot of extra reading,” he says.
One thing that Schuber and Winans agree on is that establishing a client relationship before the homeowner deals with their insurance company is particularly helpful. “You become partners,” Winans says. “You're not just someone trying to get a job, you're someone trying to help them rebuild the most significant asset they've ever had.”