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Fires and relocations keep Northern California contractors busy

Between the year after year of major wildfires and more San Francisco Bay Area urban dwellers moving to the suburbs in the coronavirus pandemic, North Bay firms that design, install and renovate high-end entertainment systems and outdoor spaces for entertaining report they are busier than ever — and almost too busy.

Windsor-based Johnson Pool & Spa is booked through August of next year for new construction, and half the coming winter is already full of jobs for renovations, according to Matt Perezchica, president and second-generation co-owner. Revenues have tripled in the past eight years, with 15% growth expected this year, reaching an estimated $11 million–$12 million.

“In the 32 years we’ve been in business, we’ve never been this busy,” he said. “Since COVID, our lead generation is up at least five-fold, and the worst part is that we just can’t hire a night shift.” That’s because of the noise from running excavation equipment and power tools.

Of the 40 or so pool inspections the company has conducted in the past month and a half, about three-quarters of them are for homeowners who are moving up from the Bay Area, some because their employers have told them they won’t be returning to the office until sometime next year.

Ryan Granko, owner of Sonoma-based high-tech-equipment installer Granko Inc., said his crews have been busy prepping secondary homes for primary use and for long-term commitments on short-term rentals.

“There is more demand demand from rental companies to increase AV and internet for homes that instead of renting for a week are now renting for a month or two months, allowing spouses to work remotely,” he said.

That means upgrading modems to the fastest models and setting up higher-speed wireless networks, usually with mesh WiFi that extends coverage outside.

“That’s the first thing people come to us for,” Granko said. Creating outdoor working spaces has been particularly in demand, he said.

That’s a common refrain Jeff Schween hears several times a week while wearing his hats as a Compass real estate agent specializing in higher-end areas of Sonoma County and as a partner in a home construction company that’s doing wildfire rebuilds.

“We’re seeing a real push to our marketplace from San Carlos or San Francisco, because people have gotten clearances from their employers where they do not have to be back in the office for a while,” Schween said. “Rather than spending $8,000 a month renting, they want to spend $5,000 a month to own.”

One San Carlos couple referred from an agent on the Peninsula a little over a month ago just moved into a Healdsburg home, moving from a 1,200-square-foot home to a 1,400-square-foot house with four bedrooms plus an office and a work-from-home space created in the garage.

Another couple, who had just moved from Boston to San Francisco in February, just put an offer on a home in the Skyfarm development of Santa Rosa when they got the go-ahead to work remotely, and dividing walls to add another office has been part of the sale conversation, Schween said.

Also coming into conversations during the escrow process are the ability to convert space in the existing home square footage to “Zoom rooms” for videoconferencing privacy or outfitting accessory buildings such as a pool cabana for multiple uses such as a spare bedroom and office, he said.

Need for more skilled technicians

But it’s not just transplants from higher-cost or denser parts of the Bay Area who are keeping the specialty trades busy with projects. Santa Rosa-based Summit Technology Group could use five to 10 more qualified technicians to handle all the home theater and audio installation and upgrade projects, some for those relocating to newly purchased Napa County estates and others for second homes that have become primary homes during the pandemic, according to owner and CEO Larry Dashiell.

These projects include more outdoor entertainment, such as rigging outdoor patios with large TVs for evening viewing, and beefing up data networking to handle videoconferencing and streaming entertainment.

“It puts a different stress on the company, because there are a lot more projects instead of larger projects,” he said. “That calls for more project management. For projects on big houses, we used to be able to have a lead superintendent then have those under them to run the job, but now we need to have qualified technicians for all these smaller jobs. It’s better than the alternative — not having work.”

Granko also has seen a surge in small jobs, versus the whole-house prewiring and equipment installations and service his company has thrived on with new construction.

“Our sales numbers this year probably are going to be down,” he said. “Labor is going to be higher because we’re doing more smaller projects. Before, our income was heavily in sales of electronics. We don’t make most of our profit from labor, because the technicians are highly paid and the cost of insurance.”

Sheltering and remotely working residents have been fueling a surge in spending at home-improvement stores nationally, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Home Depot’s latest quarterly revenue rose 23% from a year before, and Lowe’s reported a 30% increase.

Dashiell is looking for more technicians also to handle renewable energy jobs, as the public safety power shutoffs last fall plus the wildfires have more homeowners inquiring about solar-plus-battery systems.

This interest in higher-end outdoor entertainment options at home has kept the phone ringing a lot over the past few months at Allen Land Design. The Santa Rosa-based landscape architecture firm has seen its number of projects since spring increase by 50% from the same time last year, according to principal Jeff Allen. Common features clients want are pools and outdoor ovens.

“They’re throwing a lot of money at it,” he said.

Over the company’s three decades in business, the norm has been to employ 20 to 30 continually on jobs. The company also maintains landscapes at second homes for nearly a couple dozen clients, and in the first couple of months a handful of those customers have relocated to the local homes permanently.

The added work has called for the addition of a few more in the office and a half-dozen to the field crews to keep up with demand, Allen said.

“We’re booked nine months to a year out,” he said. Some of that is because Allen’s crews have to work around the schedules of other contractors and suppliers, such as Eddie’s Quality Concrete and Johnson Pool, which also are backed up with work.

More wildfires, more pool projects

Johnson Pool used to undertake projects in Napa, Marin and Mendocino counties, but the demand for replacing pools among the over 5,000 homes destroyed around Santa Rosa from the 2017 wildfires caused the company to pull back its focus closer to home, according to Perezchica.

When the company was started by his parents in 1988, about one-third of the pool projects were for Bay Area professionals buying second homes in the North Bay, and that grew to two-thirds of Johnson’s work by 2017. But fire rebuilds have caused new construction for relocating homeowners to fall to half the firm’s projects, and nearly all the renovations are at burned properties.

The average price of a new in-ground pool is about $100,000. Upgrading or reconfiguring an existing pools on burned properties is averaging $40,000–$50,000, with $15,000–$20,000 of that coming from having to replace plumbing and equipment that was destroyed in the firestorm.

From what Perezchica has seen, roughly half the pool projects in the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood of northeast Santa Rosa that lost about 1,800 homes in the 2017 Tubbs Fire have been completed. And now there’s even more to replace, with the higher-end homes burned in the Chalk Hill area east of Windsor and Healdsburg during last year’s Kincade Fire and the dozens of homes just destroyed along Mill Creek and Wallace Creek roads west of Healdsburg in the Walbridge Fire that’s still not totally contained.

“We were super busy before the new fires, and now this,” Perezchica said.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers wine, construction and real estate.

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