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March 25, 2013

Midands businesses ready for home sales to spring back

The Midlands’ housing market is beginning to bloom again after a harsh economic downturn.

The Midlands’ housing market is beginning to bloom again after a harsh economic downturn.

And businesses — from remodelers to landscapers to hardware store owners — are anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring’s warm weather and a pickup in home sales activity.

Their hope is, with sunny days and an inventory of restless renters out there, the steadily recovering housing market will give way to a new burst in home spending this year.

Here are three of their stories:

Hardware store ready for warm weather projects

In the midst of the worst economic downturn in a lifetime, Brandon Clarke took a chance on reviving a hardware store that had closed less than two years earlier.

Even as independent hardware stores were shuttering all around the Midlands, Clarke opened Cayce ACE Hardware in Parkland Plaza – in the same spot where Hardwarehouse had served customers, including Clarke, for years.

The store has hung on and seen sales grow “by a good percentage” every year since it has been open, store manager Donnie Wheelis said.

“We are seeing it turn some,” he said.

“What we’re hoping for obviously is a good spring,” Wheelis said. “The earlier spring gets here, the better sales are going to be.”

Last year, spring arrived a little earlier than it has so far this year, Wheelis noted. Cold, whipping winds have kept March cold.

“But as usual, people get out in their yards, get their yards ready, put out their weed and feeds, whatever potting soils they need and the mulch they put around the garden.”

The hardware store is ready, its patio stocked with stacks of potting mixes, garden soils, marble chips and lime and a line of lawnmowers awaiting buyers out front.

“Everybody’s starting to get into the mood. Obviously, when it gets warmer, they’re gonna get out there more,” Wheelis said.

Landscapers took a risk, now ready to reap rewards

Four years ago in the middle of a harsh economy, Fred Gantt noticed two things that would transform his landscaping business: gas prices had soared to $4 a gallon and 90 percent of his work was in Columbia, 35 miles from where he had operated his St. Matthews business for a quarter of a century.

So at a time when many landscaping businesses were going under, Hay Hill Services did something counterintuitive. The design/build firm expanded its business model, purchased a building on Bluff Road and hired additional workers.

Gantt, who co-owns the firm with business partner David Stack, said purchasing the building and more than four acres and opening it as a garden center was risky, but he said he realized his business needed a presence in Columbia if he was going to take it to the next level.

“We were spending money when everybody else was hunkering down,” Gantt said. “We’re all in the expansion mode right now, but we took a huge risk, banking on that things are going to turn around and pick up.”

The company has four landscape architects on staff that work with customers from conceptualization of a plan to installation of the finished project. And it recently rounded out its staff by hiring a landscaping maintenance worker.

Landscaping business slowed down as home sales – and spending on home projects – plummeted in recent years, Gantt said. But, “we’ve never let anybody go. We’ve gone from probably 20-something employees in 2009 to about 45 probably now. So, we’ve grown. We’ve hired continuously.”

The new building serves as the garden center store where customers can examine a host of new products for their homes and yards, from grills and fire pits to swimming pools, and also can see various materials to use. Outside, there’s a big selection of plants, flowers, trees and shrubs.

As the business ramped up its expansion, Gantt said it is poised to take advantage of a rebound in the home sales market and consumer spending.

“It hasn’t been easy, but we’re positioned, hopefully, for being profitable,” Gantt said.

Renovators’ clients ready to fix up their spaces

Palmetto Construction & Renovations has been on the Columbia home remodeling scene for 12 years and thanks to a wealth of older, historic homes here, weathered the latest economic upheaval without much disruption.

Most of the small firm’s business is anchored in the Shandon, Heathwood and Forest Acres communities, said owner Jim Evatt. Those are some of the wealthier areas in the Midlands – places where some residents were more insulated from the recession than others.

“Our business has fortunately been pretty steady,” Evatt said. “Even back to 2008, where a lot of people either went out of business or lost a lot of employees, we remained steady throughout that entire time.”

A former accountant, Evatt’s remodeling business has four employees, which he said makes for a nimble business operation. He takes on projects of varying sizes throughout the year.

Still, “Springtime is always a little bit of a bump,” Evatt said. “Spring is, I think, naturally the time people think about fixing their house up — doing a little something.”

Whether it’s the change of season or the financial cushion of a tax return, business blooms in the spring, Evatt said.

“People are still showing a strong interest in putting money into their homes,” Evatt said.

The company just signed paperwork to start a deck and screened porch project, for instance, showing that, “somebody is thinking about being outside,” Evatt said. Outdoor living spaces are big considerations for homeowners this time of year, he said.

Other projects currently underway include renovating a farm house in Richland County, a kitchen demolition and renovation off Garners Ferry Road, a master bathroom project in Wood Creek Farms in Elgin and a couple of smaller bathroom projects, he said.

But it’s not just spring that his clients jumping into home renovations. It’s also whatever is in the air on Wall Street. When the stock market performs well, as it has for several months now, people feel better about spending, Evatt said.

And, there is one other factor at work in people putting money into their homes, Evatt speculated: “I think some people just are tired of waiting on things to get better. They’re saying, ‘You know what? I’ve been waiting for things to get better for three years. I’m ready to make my house a little bit nicer.’”

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