Darin Toler shops at Bud's Hardware in Mount Vernon, Ind., Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2020. (Photo: MACABE BROWN / COURIER & PRESS)
Darin Toler shops at Bud's Hardware in Mount Vernon, Ind., Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2020. (Photo: MACABE BROWN / COURIER & PRESS)

EVANSVILLE – Spend enough time inside your home and some new ideas may pop into your head.

Maybe the paint could use a touch-up, your windows are a bit drafty or your bathroom is looking a tad démodé. Or perhaps this is the year you decide you need a deck, especially since your summer social calendar is looking rather empty for now.

That’s exactly what Hanz Hoag said has happened in recent weeks.

"If you're stuck in your house long enough, you're going to see things that you need to get done," said Hoag, the owner of All American Home Improvement. "A lot of people are running out of things to do at their house on their own so that's when they call us in.”

Exterior upgrades equal big business

Many businesses across industries were forced to shut down as part of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order that went into effect in late March. Home contractors, however, were considered essential and allowed to operate.

"We've kind of adjusted to everything," Hoag said. "A lot of people don't want you to come inside their house so most of the work that we're doing and focusing on right now is everything exterior."

And exterior work makes following social distancing guidelines even easier, as customers now try to avoid the workers.

"Normally, the homeowner sometimes would be up on a roof with us or sometimes would be right there looking over our shoulder," Hoag said. "The guys are kind of enjoying being out there to get their job done."

Despite the underlying economic and public health uncertainty, Hoag said business has been steady, albeit a little slower than normal. There’s been enough work to keep employees busy every day, and no one has been laid off.

Dennis Gates is in similar shape.

Gates, owner of Ace Construction, said that although business is down somewhat — by a little more than a quarter compared to last year — some of the company’s divisions haven’t been touched.

There's been no noticeable effect on home construction, and projects that require little to no interaction with homeowners, such as roofing and fencing, have kept apace.

“But the plumbing, because we're actually inside houses, there were several (customers) that said, 'Oh, I want to put this off. Let's do it next week,’” Gates said.

He added that some clients may be concerned about contracting the virus while others aren't sure if they'll still have jobs.

Despite some projects being put on hold, Gates said the diversified nature of his company means the financial impact isn't too severe. Like Hoag, he hasn't had to lay anyone off from a lack of work.

Hoag said the postponing of the Home Show, initially scheduled for April, had the most noticeable effect on his bottom line. The show has been rescheduled for Aug. 15 and 16. The annual vendor expo sponsored by the Courier Press usually nets him 300 to 400 new appointments, he said. So far this year, he's going without.

Nevertheless, there's at least one other factor tipping the scales in Hoag's favor this year.

"I hate to say it, but when they sent that stimulus check out, a lot of people have used that for their home improvements," he said with a chuckle. "I'm sure."

DIY taking off as more people stay home

It's not just home remodeling companies seeing a steady stream of customers. If the sales at one local hardware store are any indication, many people are attempting DIY projects at home.

April was the best month on record since Jimmy Key took over Bud's Hardware in Mount Vernon, Indiana, four years ago as owner/operator.

"We've been pretty lucky here," said Key, who declined to provide any numbers. "This hardware store has been here 147 years so it's been through quite a bit of stuff."

He suspects the current situation is discouraging people from driving long distances so customers that would normally shop at the the big box hardware stores in Evansville are instead turning to Bud's.

There hasn't been one particular hot-ticket item, he said, but sales of the usual springtime purchases, like paint and lawn and garden supplies, remain strong.

Judging from his on-the-ground observations, Key doesn't expect demand will slow in the coming weeks.

"We'll just have to see if I'm right or wrong on that one but sure feels that way," he said.

Customer interactions changing as people come back to the store

Like all businesses, home contractors and hardware stores have been touched by the new coronavirus, even if the pathogen didn't completely shut them down.

Bud's is wiped down three times a day, and employees of Hoag and Gates will continue to wear masks and other protective equipment at worksites.

For Gates, the strangest change though was skipping out on the usual handshake when he first meets new customers.

"I feel very awkward, and I think they do, too, most of the time," he said.

And Gates said this new normal, along with its slower demand, will likely stick around for a while.

"I don't think it's going to be a faucet off and on," he said. "I think it's going to start up a lot slower than it was turned off."

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