The Next Generation

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Say hello to your customer of 2018. I'll be 42 and in my prime remodeling years by then. It's Generation X brethren and the echo boomers coming up behind us you really have to worry about.

May 01, 2008

Jonathan Sweet
Senior Editor

Say hello to your customer of 2018.

I'll be 42 and in my prime remodeling years by then. (Take the picture here, recede the hairline, gray the temples a bit and you’ve probably got the idea.) The baby boomers? They’re yesterday’s news. It’s my Generation X brethren and the echo boomers coming up behind us you really have to worry about.

The most obvious change is technology. Baby boomers use the Internet, but we live it. Before I do business with anyone, I visit their Web site. If the site doesn’t have what I want or — God forbid — they don’t have a site, they’re off the list. And compared to most people my age, I’m a virtual Luddite — I still get a daily newspaper delivered to the house every morning. We expect to communicate with you by e-mail and instant message — and get an instant response.

We also have a different attitude about housing than the baby boomers, who were much more likely to buy a home and stay there for 20 years than most Xers and echo boomers are. Some of this is by choice, but a lot of it is the realities of the job market in the modern economy.

We’re buying houses at a younger age than the baby boomers and we’re investing heavily in those homes. While available data is limited, Harvard research shows we spend more on remodeling than previous generations did at our age.

The bad news is that we’re getting burned out on homeownership. We bought into the “home as an investment” sales pitch lock, stock and barrel ... and we’ve seen that investment take a beating. We’ve tried to sell houses and had to take losses or watched new homes go up next to ours at a fraction of what we paid.

The investment idea will take care of itself over the next few years as the market straightens out, but there’s a bigger problem — but possible opportunity — with my generation and the next one. There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just say it — we’re lazy. We’ve gotten tired of taking care of houses, of making long commutes into work from far-flung exurbs. We’re willing to trade the big yard and house to be closer to work and for a low-maintenance lifestyle. I can’t believe how many people I've talked to in the last year who are ready to downsize. And these aren’t retirees. These are my friends, the parents of my daughter’s classmates, my coworkers — Xers and echo boomers all.

On the surface, this looks like bad news. As demographer Neil Howe said when I interviewed him for the article, the McMansions of the baby boomers won’t cut it for the echo boomers. So the $200,000 kitchen in the cookie-cutter subdivision probably won’t be as common, but if we want to live closer to the cities, we’re going to be buying older homes that will still need work.

The reality is we, as a group, don’t have as much money as the baby boomers and probably never will. So the projected growth in remodeling’s going to have to come from smaller projects and more of them. The good news is that seems probable.

On the other hand, the crazy years from 2000 to 2005 aren’t likely to be repeated. In fact, when Harvard made their projections for the future they didn’t use those years to do it because a lot of that work was “unusual,” according to Kermit Baker.

So for those of you waiting to get back to “normal,” just remember what normal was before the last few years. Remodeling’s not going away in the next 10 years, but it will be different.

Senior Editor Jonathan Sweet also writes several times a week on the Remodeling Notes blog at www.proremodeler.com/blogs.

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