Stay-At-Home Improvement: DIY Builders Help Drive Up Lumber Prices

Jul 14, 2020
Originally published on July 14, 2020 5:10 pm

For years, Matt Harris dreamed about building a treehouse out behind his back fence in Knoxville, Tenn. He never got around to it, though, until the pandemic hit.

"It was just a matter of finding time," Harris says. "And that didn't come until everything kind of shut down for a little bit."

When the coronavirus canceled youth sports for the season, Harris suddenly found his weekends free. And his children — ages 8, 7 and 4 — made a willing construction crew.

"They were good measurers and markers of the wood," Harris says. "You don't let small children use power tools, necessarily. But in terms of things they could help [with], they were enthusiastic about it."

As he set about buying supplies, Harris noticed a lot of other housebound families seemed to be working on their own projects.

"There were definitely some days when we went to Lowe's where it looked like a swarm of locusts had come through," says Harris, an economist at the University of Tennessee. "I think the lumber industry has probably done pretty well."

Indeed, since bottoming out in early April, wholesale lumber prices have soared 50%. At $523 per thousand board feet, they're now well above last year's level. Sawmills, which slashed production in the spring in anticipation of a painful recession, found demand for lumber holding up better than expected, thanks in part to pandemic-inspired projects.

"With people stuck at home and unable to get out and travel, they've been putting a lot of energy into projects around the house," says Shawn Church, editor of Random Lengths, an industry trade journal. "This has created quite a strong demand for fencing, decking [and] treated lumber that the do-it-yourself sector is known for."

Just as food companies accustomed to supplying restaurants have struggled at times to serve home cooks during the pandemic, lumber companies are also making adjustments, since backyard builders have different needs than professional construction crews.

"The do-it-yourself sector is also called the 'over-the-shoulder' trade," Church says. "With that image in mind, you see a lot of shorter-length lumber — eight- and 10-footers."

In other words, whatever fits in the back of a personal pickup or SUV.

The half-empty shelves at Home Depot aren't the only signs of a do-it-yourself boom. LendingTree says requests for home-improvement loans last month were up nearly 8% from a year ago. There's also been a surge in Google searches such as, "How to build a deck" and "How to build a shed."

Kevin Slover's new fire pit has become a popular gathering place where neighbors can sit together, six feet apart.
Kevin Slover

Kevin Slover turned to instructional YouTube videos for help when he decided to build a fire pit and stone patio outside his house in Pullman, Wash.

"I had never worked with rock before this attempt," Slover says. "But I figured, I'll give it a shot. How bad could it be?"

The fire pit has become a popular gathering place where neighbors can sit together, six feet apart. After the inaugural fire last month, Slover posted a kind of historical marker with the date and notation, "Built during the coronavirus pandemic."

"The house is 75 years old," he says. "Assuming it lasts another 75 years and has a few more owners, it might be a bit of a conversation piece."

Matt Harris put the finishing touches on his treehouse on Father's Day. It wraps around an old cedar tree, with a high ceiling — to give his kids room to grow.

"The project was a joy," he says. "You wouldn't wish 2020 on anybody. You wouldn't wish the pandemic on anybody. But given that it afforded us the opportunity to do some things as a family that we otherwise wouldn't have done, you've got to be grateful for that."

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

There is a lot of hammering going on in backyards across the country. With summer travel plans on hold because of the pandemic, lots of people are deciding to fix up their homes. That's pushing the price of lumber and other supplies higher even as the U.S. government reported today that overall inflation is still very much in check. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: For years, Matt Harris dreamed about building a treehouse out behind his back fence in Knoxville, Tenn. But he never got around to it until the pandemic hit.

MATT HARRIS: It was just a matter of finding time for it, and that didn't come until everything kind of shut down for a little bit.

HORSLEY: When the coronavirus canceled youth sports for the season, Harris suddenly found his weekends free and a willing construction crew, ages 8, 7 and 4.

HARRIS: There's some things that - you just don't let small children use power tools necessarily. But in terms of the things that they could help, they were enthusiastic about it.

HORSLEY: As he set about digging footers and measuring rim joints, Harris noticed a lot of other housebound families seemed to be working on their own projects.

HARRIS: There are definitely some days when we'll get to Lowe's where it'll look like a swarm of locusts had come through. And there was just no anything left, or you really had to do some digging to find some good two-by-eights or whatever. So I think the lumber industry has probably done pretty well.

HORSLEY: Indeed. Since bottoming out in early April, wholesale lumber prices have soared by 50% and are now well above last year's level. Shawn Church, who edits the trade journal Random Lengths, says saw mills slashed production in the spring only to find demand holding up better than they expected.

SHAWN CHURCH: With people stuck at home and unable to get out and travel, they've been putting a lot of energy into projects around the house. And this has created quite a strong demand for fencing, decking, treated lumber that the do-it-yourself sector is known for.

HORSLEY: That's strained supply lines, though, since backyard builders typically want shorter lengths of lumber than professional construction crews - lengths that can fit in a personal pickup or SUV. The half-empty shelves at Home Depot aren't the only signs of the do-it-yourself boom. Lending Tree says requests for home improvement loans last month were up 8% from a year ago. There's also been a surge in Google searches for instructional videos on how to build a deck, fence or shed.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER TOOL WHIRRING)

HORSLEY: YouTube tips were a big help for Kevin Slover as he built a firepit and stone patio outside his house in Pullman, Wash.

KEVIN SLOVER: I have never worked with rock before this attempt, but I figured I'll give it a shot. How bad could it be? So (laughter)...

HORSLEY: It was actually pretty good. The firepit has become a popular gathering place where Slover and his neighbors can sit together six feet apart. After the inaugural fire last month, Slover posted a kind of historical marker with the date and notation, built during the coronavirus pandemic.

SLOVER: The house is 75 years old, though assuming that it lasts another 75 years and has a few more owners, it might be a bit of a conversation piece.

HORSLEY: Matt Harris put the finishing touches on his treehouse on Father's Day. It wraps around an old cedar tree with a high ceiling to give his kids room to grow.

HARRIS: The project was a joy. You wouldn't wish 2020 on anybody. You wouldn't wish the pandemic on anybody. But given that it afforded us the opportunity to do some things as a family that we otherwise wouldn't have done, you got to be grateful for that.

HORSLEY: And like a lot of pandemic projects, the treehouse has given the Harris family some happy memories of a time that a lot of people would like to forget.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOT CHIP SONG, "THE WARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.