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Record-High Lumber Prices Don't Deter Central Ohioans From Home Renovations

Lumber stacked in a hardware store
Mike Mozart

The supply chain for lumber has been interrupted by COVID-19. In spite of this, demand has not slowed down.

A line of people standing behind or next to large metal carts filled with wooden planks snakes around the lumber section of Lowe’s in Reynoldsburg. In a roped-off section, an employee uses an industrial transportation device to lift boards off a shelf and onto metal carts. This is how people collect lumber supplies in the midst of record-high prices and demand.

“A phenomenon because of COVID is people have been sitting in their homes essentially working from home,” University of Wisconsin Professor Scott Bowe said. “And they’re sitting there looking at their crummy-looking kitchen cabinets and are like ‘we should really remodel the house.’”

Bowe studies and teaches courses on wood products. He says there are three main categories of lumber – soft-wood, hardwood and engineered wood products.

Softwood is primarily used for structural components in houses, like studs. He said hardwood is typically used for interior decorative applications, and engineered wood products are used for wall-sheeting and flooring. No category of lumber has been spared from price hikes.

“The spike we’ve seen in lumber prices is really driven by how well the housing industry is doing,” Bowe said.

As many Central Ohioans debate what to do with their latest stimulus check, some are putting off long-awaited remodeling projects because of record-high lumber prices, which are doubling and in some cases even tripling costs. Even with major supply chain hiccups, demand for lumber is showing no signs of slowing down.

Supply Slowed, Demand Steady

Holmes Lumber Columbus Market Vice President Frank Sniadach said there is a statewide lumber supplier.

“You have wood prices that have never been where they’re at,” Sniadach said. "People are paying double the amount, with other products as well but wood in particular, double what they would have a year ago.”

He cites the engineered wood product oriental strand board, or OSB, as an example. Builders commonly use it to sheath walls and roofs.

“OSB, which is a wood panel that’s used on projects. Last year this time? It was probably selling, we were buying it for $10 a sheet,” Sniadach says. “This week? It’s $50 a sheet."

And a simple eight-foot two-by-four plank that cost $4 a year ago is nearly double the price now.

Sniadach's company is faring well since it’s supplying the wood. So are contracting businesses like The Cleary Company, which primarily focuses on home remodeling in Columbus. Aaron Enfinger, who is the chief operating officer for the company, said the company strives to do all it can to make customers aware of the current lumber supply issues.

“As we go through the process to get initial costs for a project, we’re having a lot of conversations with our clients to make sure that number one, they’re aware of what’s going on, that we are facing these types of price increases right now,” Enfinger said.

Enfinger says he tries to stress market volatility with customers. He said COVID-related supply issues have lengthened the time it takes to complete a project, sometimes 10-fold.

“We order a faucet where normally it would be on the job site Thursday, it’s 4-6 weeks out,” Enfinger explains. “There’s not enough people at the ports to unload the ships. There’s not enough people to take the containers onto trucks or trains, and there’s not enough people to man the trains and trucks to get them out into distribution.”

So customers need to commit to ordering all their materials at once for The Cleary Company to deem the project financially viable.

“Normally we would try to stage things a little bit better, or at least we would try to order them whenever they were closer to needing to be on the job site,” Enfinger said. “But now we’re just placing orders for everything to try to get materials so we can get our projects completed.”

Sniadach of Holmes Lumber notes that housing development trends have changed overtime. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, he considers this to be a contributing factor to price escalations.

“Market has been underserved for years. We’ve underbuilt since the housing bust, years back. No one is taking risks. No one is developing tons of land like they used to in the past,” Sniadach said.

For now, there’s no telling when lumber prices will return to normal.

“Nobody knows. There’s no way to know,” Sniadach said. “If the demand keeps coming and the supply can’t keep up, it will just continue on this path.”

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.