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Retailers provide installation for home remodelers


CHICAGO -- Carping about unreliable remodeling contractors seems to be as sure a sign of having entered midlife as a thickening waistline.

But at least a partial cure may be in sight for the former. An increasing number of building-supply retailers are offering homeowners a new service that helps them save time and minimizes their contact with contractors.

The new remedy can be found at large and small building-supply and home-center chains. Their "installed service" programs allow consumers to turn remodeling, once a time-consuming task, into a one-stop shopping errand.

A growing number of homeowners are using the service, in which the retailer handles all the arrangements for installing a new kitchen, bathroom, patio deck or other remodeling project.

"There's a lot of insecurity involved in finding a contractor through the Yellow Pages or a referral," said Neil Stern, a partner of McMillan & Doolittle, a Chicago retail consulting firm. When you do it through a retail store, it gives you peace of mind."

Sears, Roebuck and Co. has offered the service for years, and now local retailers such as Schaumburg, Ill.-based Handy Andy Home Improvement Centers Inc. offer it, too. The country's largest chain, Home Depot Inc., based in Atlanta, has started testing similar services at 19 stores in three markets.

Among the independents and chains that earn more than $10 million a year in sales, 43 percent recently said they had installed services, according to a survey by Building Supply Center magazine.

The growth of installed service goes hand in hand with that of the home-improvement centers. The $100 billion market has grown at an 8 percent to 9 percent rate in the last decade -- significantly higher than the 3 percent growth rate in all retailing during that time, said Robert Cheadle, an analyst with Montgomery Securities.

Many homeowners have little time to take on major remodeling projects. Nevertheless, homeowners are more concerned about the appearance of their homes than ever before and want to take a more active role in choosing materials and the design of new projects.

How do they resolve the dilemma?

Some choose their own materials and hire a contractor to install them. And for those wary of hiring contractors on their own, they get help at the nearest home-improvement center, where, more likely than not, they bought their building materials.

"In some ways, it's a do-it-yourself trend. But it's as much of a buy-it-yourself market as do-it-yourself," said Craig Shutt, editor in chief of Building Supply Home Centers magazine. "Consumers are interested in the quality of the work and more involved in the purchasing procedure. But they want to have someone else install it."

Various complications can occur when a homeowner takes on the task of finding and hiring a contractor. And finding a highly skilled and reliable contractor isn't necessarily the end of the homeowner's worries. Looking for and investigating the references of a contractor take time. And, afterward, a consumer faces the hassle of rearranging schedules to accommodate a contractor, Mr. Shutt said.

Additionally, small contractors often require a 10 percent to 30 percent down payment, whereas large retailers usually offer financing, said Bryan Patchan, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders/Remodelers Council. And, unlike dealing with smaller contractors, homeowners can go to the retailer for recourse for shabby work.

"Customers know we're not fly-by-night," said Joann Cortez, installation sales manager at Handy Andy's Chicago Heights store. "They know we're not going to go out of business next week. There are too many shady people out there. You can't trust anyone anymore."

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