Abbe Will, Research Associate and Associate Project Director of the Remodeling Futures Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, talks about what the data is telling us about the future of housing in America. Will the sudden growth of interest in healthy homes stay past the pandemic? How are shifting age demographics going to affect housing needs over the next decade? Learn from Abbe what the data is saying about these topics and more.

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Full Podcast Transcript

Grace Mase  00:07

Hello, and welcome to the Revivify podcast. I'm your host, Grace Mase. Today I'm here with Abbe Will. Abbe is a Research Associate, an Associate Project Director of Remodeling Futures Program at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. She manages and contributes research to improve America’s Housing reports, a research brief series that administers the quarterly Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activities known as LIRA, which we all rely heavily on to help us navigate through our journeys as our heads are down in the trenches. I'm super excited to speak with Abbe here today on Revivify. Welcome, Abbe.

Abbe Will  00:52

Thank you so much Grace. It's great to be here.

Grace Mase  00:55

I've been looking forward to this discussion. I feel like I'll be drinking from the firehose today, the sheer volume of incredible insights you'll be focused on over the years and we get to learn from you. So please share with us how you got started.

Abbe Will  01:09

Yeah, so I've been researching the housing industry and home improvements in particular, home remodeling and maintenance repair activities in the US for my entire career, really. So, since 2006, I've been with the Joint Center for Housing Studies. I started as a summer research intern and you know, just continued, moved up the ladder a little bit there. And you know, I have been working with the remodeling futures program within the Joint Center for housing studies for the last 15 years or so. And yeah, I mean, it's been a terrific journey really. The center has been a really wonderful place to work. The people are fabulous. They're just really top-notch insights into housing and remodeling and kind of learning from the experts for sure over the years and trying to do my best to contribute to that too.

Grace Mase  01:58

Well, that's incredible. That's amazing. Fifteen years just analyzing data and monitoring the changes of our remodeling industry. And I would like to get your perspective. From the time you started your career to where we are now, what are some aha moments or wow moments that you discover?

Abbe Will  02:16

Yeah, well, it's been a little bit of a roller coaster right. So when I started researching the Housing and Home Improvement industries back in 2006, I mean, that was you know kind of peak housing boom time in the US and remodeling too and very quickly then turned to the mortgage market crisis, the fallout from that housing boom, the overbuilding that occurred and the overspending that occurred and subprime mortgage crisis and leading into the Great Recession, you know. Up until this past recession with the pandemic, you know, the deepest recession we've seen in the US since the Great Depression. And so, it was a fascinating time to be studying the industry back then and then coming out of the Great Recession, and, you know, going through the recovery and then of course, you continue to see the cyclicality in the industry and in particularly this last year which of course was so out of left field, the pandemic and the impacts on the market that we saw this past year. But it just seems like there's just always something fascinating to be uncovering and understanding and trying to really unpack all of those pieces. And then, of course, outside of all of that, outside of kind of the cyclical nature of the industry and the big upturns and big downturns potentially, there's just kind of the everyday stuff. The demographics behind housing and homeownership and renter-ship and how that changes over time too. And so, it's been a really terrific experience learning about that over the last however many years and thinking about the longer-term historical trends and what does that mean. What can we learn from that moving forward too?

Grace Mase  03:52

And I love it because as tough as this year has been, it's definitely given us a reevaluating of how things should be going forward. So, let's dig a little bit deeper in terms of how COVID has impact homeowner in making decisions, remodeling decisions. What do you think are these major changes within last just by nature of this past year versus previous 15 years?

Abbe Will  04:13

Right! So, the past year was really obviously remarkable on so many levels for the industry, for the world, for our economy and for individuals, people, and households, and families. So, what we saw last year was the very beginning of the pandemic, really when we all went on lockdown to some degree and there was a lot of unknowns right and a lot of uncertainty. And it really looked like it could be just a very dire situation not just for the economy more broadly but for housing and for home improvements. Originally looking back to our April 2020 LIRA, we were projecting a complete about-face for the hauling industry that instead of some decent growth. In 2020, we were thinking that we were going to go negative for sure. And then a month or two- or three-months kind of later spring into the summer, it really turned around remarkably quickly for housing and home improvements and we can talk about all of the factors around that. But what we saw was that, with so many folks spending so much more time at home during the pandemic, whether that was working from home, schooling from home, doing all of your entertaining at home, whether that's just within your household or maybe outdoors, doing entertaining outdoors, that being the safer option.

For folks that home was a huge part of everyone's lives last year and it was on everyone's mind day in and day out. When you're spending all that time at home, you're looking around. And first of all, trying to make some changes that you really need to make right. Like if you need space for your home or office all of a sudden or if you need space for your kids to do school work, all of a sudden during the day, you know, being on their computer too while you're on yours, you have to make some changes pretty quickly. And so, we saw that really become a bright spot for the remodeling industry. And part of that is really DIY projects, a lot of homeowners just doing what they could to kind of freshen up their space, you know, whether that was painting or doing some minor projects. Maybe even maintenance repair projects that they needed to do just feel better about being in the house all the time or maybe it was even delayed projects and the stuff that you had kind of piled up around the house of like oh yeah, I'll get to that someday when I have time. And then all of a sudden, we kind of had all the time in the world. So yeah, we saw that the remodeling industry really bounced back especially on like the DIY smaller projects. We can talk about some of the other parts of the market too but that was a surprise to us initially, that happened so quickly and so robustly that homeowners were really doing whatever they could to kind of make their homes just feel better or make themselves feel better about just having to be in a situation we all found ourselves in.

Grace Mase  07:13

I love your thought process. I mean, it's true. We all been at home. It's one of those moments where we feel like we just want something that we have control over. And just like you mentioned, painting a house or doing some DIY, it gives that sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Abbe Will  07:29

Absolutely! Yeah, I think that's exactly it a little bit of, sense of control and pleasure when there's so much other uncertainty and unhappiness otherwise happening around you or in the world, that at least you can feel like well, I'm home, I have to be home and at least I can be happy and secure and healthy here.

Grace Mase  07:49

So, I think these changes are good for the industry, right? What's your thought?

Abbe Will  07:54

Yeah, I mean, right. So the increased emphasis on home, that it's top of mind for folks that they're just much more kind of almost like laser-focused on their home and making it healthy, making it secure, making it work for them or work better for them, whatever the situation they might find themselves in. That I think is a huge plus for the industry and for the market that I think it was probably likely to last, that we won't see a quick shift necessarily, that I think the pandemic just really made home top of mind for so many folks that yeah.

I think that ultimately, the DIY activity, the increased smaller project activity may or may not sustain right. So that may or may not be a long-term shift in the industry and we could argue that it probably won't be. But again, just the increased fact, the increased emphasis on home and being home, will ultimately result in a lot more interest and remodeling activity and repair activity that might not have really occurred in the same timeframe over the next however many years.

Grace Mase  09:09

Let's unpack a little bit. You mentioned about guess the trend is going this way. The trajectory is pretty crazy and we are bound to see some sort of slowdown at some point because people will be going back to work, the focus may shift a little bit. They may be shifting over or even their budget may shift over to traveling, entertainment a little bit more than they have been in the past year. So, what are the challenges that you see will impact our industry in the next couple of years?

Abbe Will  09:34

Sure. So, we've heard a lot of talk about a k-shaped recovery in the broader economy and I think that means a lot for remodeling too. We've seen some portion of households and of homeowners who've kind of come through the pandemic at least to date doing okay, right. Like they kept their jobs, they worked from home, as you pointed out weren't spending for vacations or travel or eating out. And so, they had a lot more money to work with in terms of planning to do projects or doing projects or planning for future home improvements. And then we have another portion of the population who are just in the complete opposite situation where large job losses or large income losses with job losses and really struggling to make their housing payments and certainly not thinking about even what more can I do, kind of just sitting on everything else until they kind of get back in the economy and get working again.

And in particular, we think about parts of the economy that have been just much more deeply impacted by the pandemic. So, folks working in the restaurant industry, in the hospitality industry and tourism which is of course locational to then that some parts of the country, some metros you think will be much more impacted by the pandemic, you know, downturn recession and job losses. You can think about metros like Orlando or Las Vegas, potentially taking a lot longer time to kind of recover from this last year.

But right, kind of thinking longer-term post-pandemic, kind of DIY smaller project activity, certainly, we could see that that could revert back to kind of the long-term trend. And that actually had been declining that the share of spending for DIY projects, the total market size had been coming down pretty steadily over the last 10/20 years. And that partly is due to our aging population, older homeowners less likely to do DIY projects. But we actually saw that trend across all ages. So even the youngest homeowners, their share of spending for DIY projects have been coming down too before the pandemic.

And we can think about millennials and millennial generation, maybe just not having the same interest or skill level necessarily to do like a successful DIY project or to feel like they want to undertake one or could undertake one, that could be part of the explanation there. I think also maybe time constraints that we just seem to have like so much more that can consume our time that is distracting potentially from wanting to undertake a DIY project and you're now wanting to spend the time to do that when you can you can hire a pro to help. So, we think increased activity that we saw post-pandemic or with the pandemic, in DIY in small projects might not hold up over the longer term. We might revert back to a more normal share of the market as you pointed out. As people are going back to work and going back to kind of like normal lives, traveling and kids doing sports activities, you just don't find that you have the same amount of time and you're just not spending as much time at home.

But of course, then we can think about bigger projects, the more discretionary projects, kitchen, bathroom remodels, room additions, the types of projects that people kind of love to do. They're exciting to do, they're fun to do in a way that those projects we think were certainly a smaller part of the market last year. And again, kind of had been trending to be a smaller part of the market overall, that could shift back we think with a more normal market and a more normal economy that homeowners will feel like they can kind of get back to planning those bigger projects moving forward kind of post-pandemic. So that's something that we're kind of trying to understand better and see where that unfolds. But yeah, we would expect to see increased activity on that, for sure.

Grace Mase  13:41

Well, that's really exciting because I think since COVID, on our platform, we can see interest in these kinds of healthy home design or wellness approach. What are things that you have seen in terms of home design over this past year or so?

Abbe Will  13:57

Yeah, I mean, that's a really great one to start with healthy homes. That's an area of the industry that we had been doing some research over many years trying to understand that as an emerging niche in the remodeling industry. And right, we think that with the pandemic healthy housing is likely to see some really good growth in coming years. And so, in particular focus on indoor air quality. You know, the surveys that we'd seen, that we’ve done pre-pandemic, indoor air quality was always one of the top concerns that homeowners who were already kind of thinking about healthy housing that was one of their top issues. And can think about that with kids with asthma or anyone in the household who might have asthma, insensitive to dust or mold in the home or other home-building materials that might have some off-gassing that concerned you can to kind of minimize those impacts on your house.

And then with the pandemic, certainly folks thinking about how are we filtering our air? How are we refreshing the air in our home? Are we doing it often enough? Are we really getting the best indoor air quality we can? And so, I think that's going to be something that comes out of the pandemic that we might not have seen quite as much of a bump in the next couple of years here. And of course, it is yet to be seen. I don't know if we've really seen the data on that yet. But that's our expectation that homeowners will be thinking much more top of mind when they're doing a home remodeling project. You know, whatever type of project it might be. Thinking about how can I do what I want but also make my home healthier is something that I think people are thinking about and talking about and asking.

Grace Mase  15:47

Absolutely, that's a really good point. And the other couple things that we see and maybe too early, is the desire for sustainable solutions. Homes are also looking at adding solar panels and looking at water treatments potentially to address the gray water, separating those water and that to me, is actually quite exciting to think about. People are more conscious about the environment they occupy and how to not waste more unnecessarily.

Abbe Will  16:16

Yeah, absolutely. So, energy efficiency, retrofits, sustainability as part of remodeling projects. Again, whether it's a component of a bigger project or that that could be the focus of other projects to use, sustainable products and projects. And we had seen growing interest in what we call green remodeling. That's kind of the broad umbrella for capturing whether it was an energy retrofit or a sustainability focused project. And we think too that those types of projects certainly go hand in hand with disaster repairs too. So, when we have more frequent storm activity, more severe storm activity. I think folks are obviously thinking about the impacts of climate change and what does that mean for your housing and your neighborhood and what could you do potentially to think about making your home more resilient to the impacts of climate change whether that is just more frequent, severe storms. And we obviously think about the big storms, hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. Those are obviously very serious disasters that impact local housing. But even just a hail storm coming through or wind storm coming through will do pretty severe damage potentially to your roofing, your siding or windows, whatever. And so, I think that's something that folks who might also be thinking about energy efficiency and making their home more sustainable, thinking about the impact on the climate. If I can do this to help lessen some of that damage, those are all going hand-in-hand for homeowners that are thinking about doing a green remodeling or sustainable remodeling.

Grace Mase  18:09

And I think that's one of the really exciting areas of our industry is looking more for ‘how do we begin to be responsible to the longevity of our industry,’ delivering a service that actually helps the family itself but also long term as an industry. How do we push for to make sure we grow, make them more resilient all together not only the buildings but as a profession industry?

Abbe Will  18:32

Yeah, absolutely! I mean, I think that's a really terrific point that we might get a little bit short-sighted right, that we're just thinking about this quarter or this year, or whatever. But yeah, we can think about 10 years, 20 years, 50 years down the road and you can argue that we need to, to some degree. I mean that we shouldn't be so short-sighted in the industry. We hope certainly with our research and our work at the Joint Center, that the historical hindsight looking back at activity over the last decade or two decades that might give us some insights into future activity too. Or just to understand that there are long-term trends in the industry that do shift and do change. And we can certainly apply some of that to where we think the markets are heading in the short term as well as kind of the longer term.

Grace Mase  19:23

Now, I'd like to switch gears just for a few minutes. You talked about the demographics. I think about there's obviously various distinguished demographics that have specific needs. First one is millennials; their desire of interacting with technology, whether it's managing a project to using a system like ours to implementing ‘Internet of Things’ solutions in their homes such as mobile access Smart Home Solutions. That's an interesting group to study when they have such like, I believe it's a $30 trillion of buying power, how they're shifting the conversation of the remodeling homes to the other spectrum of aging in place of their needs. And those are two really big demographics. Do you mind sharing with us a little bit from your perspective, what's going on behind those two demographics?

Abbe Will  20:12

Yeah, so I'll start with older owners. That's an area that our center has been doing a lot of work on understanding housing for older adults and research too within remodeling futures. Looking at accessibility modifications, what is the need and what are homeowners doing and what we found is that the need is great. We have this large existing housing stock certainly received regional differences and regional variations in the type of the housing stock. And so, some parts of the country find that their typical single-family home, for example, is much less accessible with stairs leading up into the home and multistory homes and narrow hallways and narrow doors. Whereas some other parts of the country have relatively newer housing stock, single floor ranch style now not nearly as difficult to kind of make that work for someone who needs some accessibility features whether it’s because of just aging and feeling like you want to have some of those features in your home or disability too. So, we know the large share of the housing stock is really not even basic access. It's not even reaching basic accessibility, you know, having like the no-step entry and a bedroom and a full bathroom on the entry-level that you don't have to go upstairs to get to those features and having kind of extra-wide or wider spaces to maneuver into and out of rooms and in particular bathrooms, that kind of thing.

So we think the need is really great that a lot of older homeowners, especially knowing that so many continue to say that they choose to stay in their home as they age, that they're wanting to be in their homes, certainly wanting to stay in their communities whether that's because of their family or have other strong ties to the community that in order to do that safely. And in order to stay in your home safely and healthy, you inevitably would need to do some sort of modifications to make it really fit their needs. And so, we try to track that part of the market as best we can and try to understand our homeowners, thinking about this are older homeowners doing this type of work. And certainly, we have some data on that which suggests that yes, it's becoming more and more top of mind for folks that they are wanting to do what they can to kind of make their homes more accessible. There's a lot to do, though. So, we see a lot of potential for continued growth in that part of the market.

And we think that part of it is a little bit of shifting the narrative in a way that it used to kind of be that no one wanted to talk about aging, right? Like no one wants to think about when they might need grab bars. But no matter your age and no matter your situation, everyone can benefit from the design features of an accessible home. I mean, universal design is the term that the industry is used to indicate that this home works for everyone. It's just easier to use no matter who you are and what you're doing. And so, I feel like flipping that right. Like it's not an aging discussion, necessarily. It doesn't have to be just talking about aging and it doesn't have to be kind of all those potential negative connotations around having accessibility features. It can really just be about we can do this. Like if we're doing a remodeling project for working on your bathroom, we can incorporate these elements that will make this an easier space to use now as well as in the future potentially, when you might need it. So, I think that's really interesting and certainly, something that we think will be just kind of growing and growing as our population continues to age.

Grace Mase  24:12

I love it. I mean just making it universal. I'm thinking about the basic need of not having steps in the front. Imagine not to be tripped over doesn't matter the age. It could be a little one, a millennial with their young family that could actually be benefiting everybody

Abbe Will  24:26

Exactly! Bringing groceries in, bringing a carriage or stroller in or out of the house. I mean, exactly, it can work so much better for everyone. It doesn't have to be specifically about aging or disability even but yeah. And then in terms of the millennials, you've touched on the one aspect in particular home automation, as again, a growing part of the industry that we've been certainly trying to understand better as an emerging and growing part of the industry. And knowing that we do have this generation millennials and the generations behind them who are digital natives and almost just expect that everything in their life should work to some degree with technology, right? Like that's kind of just given. And so, when it does

Grace Mase  25:14

Specifically, on their phone, right?

Abbe Will  25:17

Yes! Exactly specifically on the phone. Like if I can't do it on my phone, what good is it? And so that's been fascinating to see unfold. And we think there's, again, a lot of potential there for the future of home automation and what that might look like and what that means. Again, whether it is kind of the keyless entries or being able to operate windows, shutters, shades, lighting remotely, controlling your heating and cooling when you're not even at home. I mean, that's just amazing to think that that's something that we could all use and enjoy in our homes. And so yeah, kind of the more widespread use of that and installation and retrofitting of homes to incorporate those elements. And again, millennials, that could be the push and the emphasis there coming from that generation kind of demanding those features. The technology can do it like let's do it, of course, it's a no brainer. But also thinking that those same features, those same home automation features can be helpful to any age and any generation. And in particular, again, thinking about older adults aging in their homes, the home automation could  be a huge part of staying in their homes safely and comfortably.

Grace Mase  26:34

That's a very good point. Thank you. And now, what gets you excited about the home remodeling industry?

Abbe Will  26:41

Oh boy, I mean, everything really. There isn't a part of the industry that I don't find fascinating. It's all just a fabulous industry to be studying if you ask me but I know I'm biased. So, in particular, I think uncovering the meaning in the data. So, I work with data, I look at a lot of numbers and I try to uncover the meaning in those numbers, right. Like, there's a lot of data out there, there's a lot of data to look at but what does it mean? And so that obviously, is something that I genuinely enjoy and get a lot of excitement in uncovering the meaning in the data and sharing what the insights might be in the data. You know, remodeling is a massive industry, $450 billion a year spent on home improvements and maintenance repairs in the US. It's a huge industry. And I still feel like there's a lot of light left to be shed on the industry that even though it's such a large industry, it's also a very fragmented industry. And so, I feel like it's complicated to really understand and pick apart all of those pieces. And the data doesn't always exist or it doesn't always get tracked as well as I think it should be, as well as I think this industry deserves. So yeah, it's a little bit of trying to understand what's happening without the best data. And again, really exciting to be able to uncover what we can do with the data we have to help folks who are either working in the industry, studying the industry, investing in the industry whatever that you can hopefully gain some good insights from the work that we do. So that's where I get my enjoyment.

Grace Mase  28:27

Now, I love it. The fact that you're able to help us holistically as industry looking at how do we move forward, and where we came from, and where are we now? I think those three points are so critical for us to understand how to adjust and how to adapt at the same time. Now, you touched on a really good point of our industry such a fragmented from one contractor to another contractor within same city would have different practices, different way of approaching things and let alone from one state to another state. And so, for homeowners on the other hand, they don't know what they don't know and try to navigate through these come complicated fragmented industry is hard.

Oftentimes is that there's inefficiency also placed into that. And for us, thinking about the exciting part where going forward as remodeling is how to bring using technology more effectively and collect that data and be able to share that data like what you have been doing for us be really focused on what is it that we individually can do to contribute to the greater good of the industry?

Abbe Will  29:28

Yeah, absolutely. I think that's all exactly along the lines of like how we think about what the industry means for the broader economy. Again, it's such a major part of our economy but then on an individual level to thinking about those individual interactions between contractors and homeowners.

Grace Mase  29:48

There's always something new, something to learn because the dynamic is so different. One plus one doesn't necessarily equal to two all the time because there are emotions involved and there are various factors as you mentioned earlier.

Abbe Will  30:02

And multifaceted as you mentioned too, right, fragmented but multifaceted. And so yeah, exactly. Just a lot of layers to understand and unpack.

Grace Mase  30:12

Yeah for me, it's fun to wake up in the morning, jump out the bed, like what problem do I get to learn and study and figure out how to solve?

Abbe Will  30:18

Exactly! Yeah, I can definitely relate to that.

Grace Mase  30:24

Well, you provide so much great information. I do want to ask, what's your secret of success?

Abbe Will  30:30

Secret of success? My goodness! I mean, I feel like it's a little bit cliche to say but it is a little bit of you know, just follow your passion. And actually a little bit of maybe don't necessarily try to plan that passion. If you're open to ideas and experiences and new things, then you might find yourself exploring like totally different passions maybe you hadn’t entertained in the beginning of your career, potentially. Certainly, my background is in economics both undergrad and my master's degree. And coming out of my programs, I didn't necessarily even have housing on my radar. So, it was something that was there. But it was there among like many other fields that I thought I would enjoy researching and working in. So, I kind of fell into housing a little bit in the beginning. But as soon as I was in it, I was hooked. And I think just being open to being curious about your world and then following what really makes you happy. So, again yeah, I know that might sound a little cliched but I feel it's just true.

Grace Mase  31:40

It's absolutely true. I love it. It's so genuine because for many young folks coming in the industry and listening to what you just described, sometime all of us have this imposter syndrome. Like we're not good enough. I don't know,I need to do this but I can't do this. But be open, willing to try things and then before you know you're stumbling on something that you could be extraordinary passionate about and contribute and make such a great impact for greater goods.

Abbe Will  32:07


Grace Mase  32:08

So, thank you so much, Abbe.

If you'd like to learn more about Abbe Will at the Harvard Joint Center for housing studies, be sure to check out the website at and you'll find Abbe Will there. I hope you enjoyed listening and learning from Abbe Will of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. And thank you so much for joining us at this episode of Revivify Podcast. We'll see you next time.