Pleasant River Lumber in Dover-Foxcroft is shown last November. High lumber prices have forced many to rethink home improvement projects. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor-based independent contractor Shaun Crockett’s big summertime moneymaker is building new decks for his clients. Last year was among his most profitable years ever, and this year is already shaping up to match that success.

That’s despite the fact that Crockett, along with contractors and DIY home renovators nationwide, has had to contend with the price of lumber and other materials skyrocketing over the past year, as well as scarcity of many products.

“Everybody is scrambling to get what they need from this store and that supplier,” Crockett said. “In the past, it would take a week or two to get some supplies. Now it can take up to six weeks. And it costs twice as much. We’ve had some folks downsize their projects simply because the price was astronomical. It has definitely made things very different for us.”

Lumber prices specifically are through the roof. In February, prices reached an all-time high at just over $1,000 per 1,000 square board feet — which is double the price from November 2020. Other commodities, such as sheetrock, plywood, steel and roofing are also at a premium, and can sometimes be in short supply as demand remains unusually high.

The squeeze is felt by both large-scale construction and small home projects. In Maine, projects ranging from a major upgrade to a Piscataquis County ski resort to the installation of a new footbridge in downtown Bangor have all met with delays or budget increases due to rising costs and supply issues.

For the average homeowner, it can mean the difference between getting what you want, and either downsizing or rethinking what you can afford. That 16-foot new back deck might end up being a 12-foot deck — or, you might choose to forgo using lumber altogether, and go with a composite material, something that’s normally much more expensive than lumber, but is now at a very competitive price, according to Crockett.

Viking Lumber president David Flanagan said that the array of factors contributing to the across-the-board inflated commodity prices is something he and his colleagues have never seen before.

“It was kind of a perfect storm of factors,” said Flanagan, who with his family runs 11 lumber and building supply yards across midcoast and eastern Maine.

First, sawmills and other production facilities had to shut down temporarily when COVID-19 hit, causing a sudden dropoff in production. Then, hurricane season in August and September caused prices on the yellow pine harvested in the southern U.S. to jump, a relatively common phenomenon around that time of year, depending on hurricane severity.

That was followed by one of the worst forest fire seasons on record out west, with the Pacific Northwest — home to the country’s most productive timberlands and lumber mills — especially affected.

And finally, throughout the pandemic, many people were at some point confined to their homes, with very little on which to spend their discretionary income. Inevitably, some decided that they wanted new kitchen cabinets, or a new deck or patio.

“When you’re sitting at home, you start to see things you want to fix around the house,” Flanagan said. “Our do-it-yourself marketplace has really exploded. We are a semi-pro lumber yard, but almost overnight, we ended up becoming a retail, Home Depot-style yard. We’ve had many, many, many more small sales, and not so many large sales. It was a big change.”

Flanagan said the pandemic-related real estate boom in Maine has also contributed to a banner year for his company, regardless of how much more materials cost at this time.

“We’ve had folks that have bought houses in Maine sight unseen, and then when they get up here, they see something in the house that they don’t want, and they start renovating,” he said. “The demand for everything is just much higher, across the board.”

Though high prices may change how big some projects are for homebuyers of varying income levels, Crockett said his company, Your Space Home Improvement, is nevertheless busier than it’s ever been.

“We are already booked right straight out through most of the summer, which is weeks earlier than we’d normally be all booked,” Crockett said. “I hear the same sort of things from a lot of other contractors. It’s a crazy time.”

While there’s no immediate end to the high prices, Flanagan thinks that as the year goes on, things might change.

“I think this inflationary trend will start to even out, and we’ll see a better balance between supply and demand, especially now that we’re seeing the pandemic get a little better,” Flanagan said. “But a lot of that is going to depend upon Mother Nature, and whether or not we’ll see awful fires and hurricanes like we did last year. 2020 has been a wild ride.”

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.