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Canadian consumers have many ways to save money on home renovations despite a pandemic-driven surge in demand that has jolted lumber and construction panel prices to all-time highs.

However, such advice usually falls on deaf ears, experts say.

Instead, customers are doubling down, switching to more expensive materials as the cost difference with wood shrinks, adding extra elements to their projects and pre-ordering lumber to lock in price and ensure supply.

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“If their plan was to build a pressure-treated deck in their backyard, then a lot of people are now saying, ‘You know what? For about the same price, I can get a hardwood deck or a composite deck or a heat-treated lumber deck,”’ said Brad Swanson of Swanson’s Home Hardware Building Centre in Kitchener, Ont., a family owned operation since 1982.

“They’re a little bit more (expensive) but they’re within people’s budgets. If they’re going to spend $5,000 on a pressure-treated deck and a composite deck is only $5,500, or maybe $6,000, they’re thinking, ‘That’s not a bad investment.”’

Customers are starting to have “almost a hoarding mentality,” Swanson said, adding many are ordering lumber months ahead of construction.

As home prices in many markets rise, renovations are being seen as a smart way to use pandemic-era savings from missed vacations or skipped events to enhance and preserve the value of the family’s largest asset, he added.

Two-by-four wooden studs used in framing walls are 40 per cent more expensive compared to a month ago and three times as high as a year ago, said Allan Janzen, manager of the Windsor Plywood store in northeast Calgary.

A 12-foot-long, two-by-six-inch pressure-treated wooden board for a deck costs about $27 now, up from about $12 a year ago, he said, while his most popular composite decking board is about $44, up only slightly from last year.

“When you’re comparing one board to another board, $12 versus $44, that’s a $32 spread. Today, the spread is much lower (about $17),” he said, noting that many consumers are opting to spend a little more for the look and feel of composite decking, as well as its low maintenance needs compared with wood.

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The rise in the price of wooden studs has made the price of steel studs, mostly used in commercial buildings, more attractive for homeowners, said Ben Hildebrandt, one of the principal researchers with the Green Building Technologies department at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary.

When eight-foot wooden studs were $3 or $4 each, steel studs seemed uncompetitively pricey at $6.50, he said. Now that wooden studs are around $8.50, steel makes more sense.

When Hildebrandt built a garage last summer, he paid about $15 for each sheet of oriented strandboard or OSB, he said. Now, with OSB at $53 a sheet, more builders are considering using alternatives such as exterior fibreglass-faced gypsum panels that sell for about $26 a sheet.

The use of recycled material is another money-saving option that also has environmental benefits, he added, although finding and preparing the materials for reuse adds uncertainty and labour cost.

“We do see lots of people looking for those items now that it’s even more expensive to get them brand new,” said Gui de Souza Rocha, operations manager for Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore in Regina, Sask.

“All of our items, either used or gently used, are in good condition and we price them accordingly. You’ll always be saving money coming to the ReStore.”

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He said he’s seeing an increase in customers looking for recycled building components and materials, which are usually sold for half or less of the retail price, but there’s also been a decrease in donated material, possibly because builders are being more cautious about work site waste.

The current level of consumer demand for renovations amid surging prices is “completely unprecedented,” says Ralph Oswald, 61, who recently sold his Winnipeg business, Oswald Construction Ltd., after more than 40 years in the renovation industry, but still works there as a senior manager.

He said his 13 employees are very busy. In fact, this could be the most active year ever for the business.

There are lots of ways to save money on the large-scale home renovations or additions his company takes on, some contracted for $150,000, $200,000 or more, said Oswald.

“The costs of your finishes, your fixtures, your flooring, those sorts of things. You could choose to downgrade your expectations a little bit. I mean, there are $400 toilets and $800 toilets,” he said.

Some clients are ordering items from online sites such as Amazon or Wayfair to save money, he said.

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But most are swallowing the extra cost and sticking with the plans they’ve made, said Oswald. Some projects were conceived before COVID-19 existed and have been awaiting final designs and permits for over a year.

He added it’s almost impossible to completely mitigate the higher cost of wood, short of cancelling or dramatically scaling back the project.

“I can buy a cheaper toilet but I’ve got to use the right two-by-fours and two-by-sixes and sheeting and joists. You can’t cheat on that.”

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