Change comes slowly to the remodeling industry, and in many cases — the solar home of the 1970s, the first-generation low-flow toilet — initial resistance has proven wise. But when the catalyst for change is no less immediate than the people who will sustain your company for the next couple of decades, resistance is not only futile, but deadly.
The 48 million consumers who make up Generation X are one such catalyst. Though this generation is smaller than the baby boomers before it, it is a major emerging segment of the homeowner market ( see “Better Than Boomers?”). Moreover, Gen Xers are entering their peak earning years with a sufficiently different set of experiences and expectations that could rewrite the rules of remodeling relationships. As 31-year-old remodeler Michael Anschel neatly summarizes the situation, “The old-school contractor who got by on his limited knowledge of the world and whose word was gospel to his clients is now faced with an educated client who can go online and look up any subject in a matter of moments.”
Here's why Gen Xers are critical to remodelers, how they're different from the generations of homeowners before them, and why their emergence as a powerful remodeling segment demands that you change — or at least reevaluate — how you work with them.
Doing Their Homework What's different about Gen-X remodeling clients? Just about everything. They're younger than most homeowners you know: born roughly between 1965 and 1976, Gen Xers are primarily in their 30s. Highly educated — 33% have a college degree, more than any previous generation — they tend to conduct due diligence on the companies they're evaluating. “We especially appreciate their knowledge,” says Cory Hogan, CEO of Upscale Downstairs, Provo, Utah. “With so many Gen Xers using the Internet, we understand that our clients have often done hours of research before we even get the first phone call.”
“This is a generation of ‘doers,'” says Anschel, president of Otogawa-Anschel, Minneapolis. “They like to be involved in things. They live in a world of options and do not like to have choices limited. They have seen things, been places, have strong feelings about things, and want to see it reflected in the spaces they inhabit.”
This could mean bold color schemes, travel-influenced design and décor, and ego-driven features that indulge their passion for sports, cooking, music, exotic fish, or anything else ( see “Design Within Reach”).
Gen Xers' tendency to plunge into things extends throughout their remodeling projects. Jonathan Hodge, a design consultant with The Alexander Group, Kensington, Md., is doing a $285,000 addition for a married, 30-something couple who, he says, “certainly did their homework.” Before their initial consultation with Hodge, the couple had interviewed friends who had remodeled, visited the NARI (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) Web site, researched the design/build process versus the architect-bid process, developed a budget, identified the materials and features they wanted, evaluated their current and future space needs, and studied up on the architectural style of their home, a 1940s brick Colonial.
“They asked a lot of questions,” Hodge says, “and had a strong desire to learn about the process, the company, and how various issues would be addressed,” such as who would be responsible for jobsite materials, and how the company's trade contractors were insured. They even pored over the small print of the contractual agreement.
Obnoxious control freaks? Young lawyers from hell? On the contrary, Hodge says. “They knew very well where their knowledge base went and where ours picked up.” Thanks to the detailed specifications and thorough, upfront communication, Hodge was able to win their go-ahead with his very first design. He respected them, and vice versa. “The project has gone very well,” he says. “It's been one of those bluebirds.”