Top Performers (below) : Austin, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Oklahoma City

Pencil Sharpeners:  Philadelphia, Tulsa, Seattle, St. Louis

New Normal:  Charlotte, Columbus, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis

Tortoise & Hare:  Boston, Chicago, Portland

Rising Stars:  Atlanta, Cleveland

Mike Right

Top Performers

These cities are characterized by steady housing prices and building permits. Remodelers in these cities are enjoying the most consistent workloads and backlogs.

Austin deserves its spot in the top 10, at least according to Doug Marsh, president of Sky-West Builders, who says that though there’s plenty of remodeling work going on, the key is who you know. “Except for the typical high-end [projects], it’s very cutthroat,” Marsh says, adding that it’s definitely a buyer’s market. “In Austin there are high-dollar ZIP codes where there’s a ton of work, including new construction,” he adds. “If you can get into these neighborhoods, the money is there,” with remodeling projects in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. One thing that’s especially prevalent in Austin is that people truly love their neighborhoods. “They don’t want to move, so that really pumps the remodeling market,” Marsh says. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, and the remodeling permits are up.”

If there’s a rough patch in the remodeling industry, it hasn’t affected Russell Remodeling, in Dallas. Owner Tom Russell says he does pretty big projects and hasn’t really felt a downturn since he’s been in business. With a couple of bath remodels starting in January that range between $75,000 and $100,000 each and another $80,000 project at the ready, Russell is staying busy fielding calls. While his subs haven’t been as busy as they used to be, Russell has plenty of work for them. “When I’m busy, they’re busy ... and they’re plenty busy,” he says.

Mike Right

And he’s not alone, he points out: several friends in the remodeling world are also staying busy. “The people doing quality work are the ones who still have work,” Russell points out. And, he adds, if anything, the downturn could be useful in thinning the herd in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Houston is at the top of the list, again, thanks to the foresight of the city’s leaders from almost three decades ago. When the oil boom went bust in the early 1980s, like Scarlet O’Hara declaring she would never go hungry again, the city vowed to never again be dependent on just one industry. Thus started the influx of every sector from high-tech to aerospace. And Leslie King, an “old Houstonian” and the owner of Greymark Construction, couldn’t be happier, as 2011 is turning out to be her best year ever. Granted, the typical price for a project has dropped from the $150,000 to $200,000 range to around $75,000, but King says she’s working harder than ever on “a ton of kitchens and bathrooms” rather than whole-house remodels. In 2010, Greymark did a total of 27 projects; the company had already reached that number by last April, and 2012 is poised to be even better. “I’ve never been booked out for six or eight months in advance,” she says. “The first quarter [of 2012] is really good, and we’re already working on the second quarter.”

In Kansas City, daily papers are reporting upbeat stories about future job growth and city development — good news for remodelers who have weathered tough times. “Three years ago things started going south. Two years ago was bad. Last year was bad. Millwork and cabinet shops dropped like flies,” says Norburg Construction owner Dan Norburg. But, he says, “a switch flipped” in September 2010, and “people are just tired of sitting on the fence.”

Kansas City never had the ups and downs of the coasts, and its medical industry continues to grow. In 2011, owner Jigger James’ company, Repairs Unlimited, saw “good, healthy growth”: his disaster restoration segment was up 45% from 2010 and he saw nearly 15% growth in his remodeling segment. While there’s still plenty of competition, many “newer” remodelers — new-home builders who entered during their own downslide or newcomers cashing in during the boom — have gone out of business. Those left standing are solid, forward-thinking companies such as Country Club Builders, where owner Steve Atkins has taken on universal design and hopes to double his workforce in 2012.

Click here to download a spreadsheet of the list.

For Oklahoma City, the oil and gas industries provide a stable economic base. “As long as gas prices are good, these [industries] are hiring and their employees have money to spend and improve their properties,” says Bryan Lee, owner of Gilcraft Construction, in Yukon. His projects include additions and whole-house remodels, and, he says, people are buying and renovating houses in the city’s desirable older neighborhoods.

Mike Casey, president of Gibraltar Construction, in Oklahoma City, attributes his company’s 8% growth over last year to the firm’s longevity — in business 20 years — and advertising to reach a broader customer base. Three years ago, about 70% of his work was for upper middle-class homeowners in the Edmond area. Now his work is more widespread, with more middle-class clients who are upgrading baths and kitchens but are staying within the room’s existing footprint. “It’s a desire rather than a need,” Casey says. He has four employees, but with increased jobs in 2011 — which he expects will continue through 2012 — he plans to add sales and management staff.

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