Expert Interview Series: Graham Soult of Property & Building Directory About the State of the UK Home Improvement Industry

Home improvement

Graham Soult is the founder and owner of CannySites.com, which manages a portfolio of sector-specific, UK-focused websites. The Property & Building Directory showcases businesses relating to home improvement and property, while the other sites cover interiors, gardening, holidays and fashion. We recently spoke with Graham to learn more about the home improvement sector in the UK, and he also gave us a few tips on how to keep your next project on budget and disaster-free.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to start a home improvement website and directory?

Though I’m known as being a retail and digital marketing expert now, I do have quite a history in the built environment space! I trained as an architect and town planner, and though I chose not to pursue that career route in the end, my degree study helped to develop my fascination for buildings and places, as well as my eye for detail and design.

The Property & Building Directory actually grew out of a website I developed way back in the late 1990s called Sapling.info. That site was an academic-focused subject gateway and was very successful for over a decade. However, as web content and digital marketing evolved in the 2000s, and my own career moved away from academia, I decided to refocus and rebrand the site for a more consumer audience, following a similar format to the directory sites that I’d already established for the home, garden, holidays, and fashion. That switch happened in August 2015, and I’m pleased to say that the Property & Building Directory has proved very popular with readers and advertisers.

What are some of the popular home improvement trends in the UK right now?

It’s important to understand the British context first. In recent decades, the UK has very much been a country of homeowners, which has fuelled the growth of big out-of-town DIY (do it yourself) stores like B&Q and Homebase. However, due to rising house prices coupled with a lack of new housing stock, the percentage of UK households owning their home has been in decline since its peak of 71% in 2003; the figure now is about 64%. At the same time, renting from private landlords has grown in popularity.

This has all impacted the home improvement market, because if you’re renting your home rather than buying it, you’re less likely to invest in DIY. At the same time, many who do own a property are time-poor but relatively cash-rich, which has fuelled a new trend of DIFM (“do it for me”). This is why DIY chains who are targeted at the trade rather than consumers – such as Screwfix, which opened its 500th store in February – have been growing rapidly at the same time as the big out-of-town retailers trim their estates.

Even though UK house prices are not increasing at the pace they were a decade or so ago, there are many home improvements that do still add value to a property, while at the same time making people’s lives more comfortable. So if you travel around the UK, you’ll still see plenty of homes having loft conversions, conservatories added, and new kitchens or bathrooms installed.

Name a home improvement product, material, or trend that you’re really excited about.

The so-called “smart home” is a big and exciting trend at the moment. Smart homes are where you automate features such as heating, lighting, and security and have the ability to control and track them using a mobile device. Some of the smart innovations are really about gadgets and gimmicks; but others, such as security cameras that send notifications to your phone, genuinely enhance people’s lives.

What impact will Brexit have on the home improvement industry in the UK?

I’ll be clear: I was and still am a Remainer, and I think leaving the EU is a terrible and sad decision. However, whether you are thrilled or dismayed by Brexit, the thing we can all probably agree on is that none of us knows what’s going to happen yet.

One impact of Brexit may well be on the DIFM trend. Since the EU enlargement of the 2000s, skilled tradespeople coming to the UK from eastern Europe have created a more competitive home improvement market and have fuelled demand for DIFM; indeed, the CEO of building merchant Travis Perkins said in 2015 that east European builders had “ended DIY.” If these east European workers now choose – or are even forced – to return to their home countries, then we might see a sudden shortage of tradespeople and higher prices for UK consumers. I hope that scenario will not happen, though.

What is the biggest money-wasting aspect of a home improvement project that is also avoidable?

You only have to watch some of the TV makeover shows in the UK to see how quickly a home improvement project can spiral out of control! There are many ways you can waste money, but also many ways to avoid doing so. The most obvious one is simply to do your homework in advance, plan exactly what you want your improvements to look and feel like, and avoid making costly changes once work has already started.

When a homeowner is trying to decide whether to hire someone to complete a home improvement project or to do it himself/herself, what guidelines or advice might you offer?

My advice is to not try to do the work yourself if there’s a chance it will go horribly wrong. With tasks like tiling and wallpapering, getting an expert in from the beginning is much better than making a mess of it yourself and having to get someone in to sort out the carnage.

Could you give us a few tips for choosing the right contractor or tradesman for a particular home improvement project?

Finding a contractor who is qualified, reliable and trustworthy is so important. Fortunately, the web makes finding the right tradespeople easier than ever. In addition to online reviews, Facebook is also a great source of information. Many trades have a Facebook page, so consumers can have a look at the comments and reviews and see how the business responds to any criticism. There will usually be photos there of previous projects as well.

Most obviously, use Facebook to source recommendations from your friends and neighbors. The estate where I live in Gateshead has a community Facebook group with 800 members, so if there’s a tradesperson who’s been doing a brilliant job in someone’s home – or whose work is less appealing – word soon gets around.

And, at all costs, avoid any supposed tradesperson who comes to the door asking for work – you hear so many horror stories about this. Anyone who’s really good is likely to be too busy to knock on doors and will have prospective customers chasing them.

If someone were to say to you, “I’m really worried about a contractor or tradesman turning my remodeling project into a ‘home improvement horror story,”‘ how might you respond?

It’s a bit harsh, but I’d probably say “Why didn’t you check this guy out more thoroughly beforehand?” Of course, mistakes can happen. But because there’s such a lot of information out there now, there’s really no excuse for not finding someone who is recommended and suitably qualified for the job.

What do you foresee for the future of the UK home improvement industry?

A lot of commentators are excited by the arrival in the UK of Australian DIY chain Bunnings. They bought the British chain Homebase and are spending £500m revamping the Homebase estate of 260 stores. In recent years, neither Homebase nor its bigger rival B&Q have invested very much in existing stores; and as a result, many of these stores look tired and unappealing. So Bunnings’ arrival and investment are significant as it’s a powerful statement that home improvement has a strong future in the UK, and it’s the biggest injection of cash that the sector has seen for some time. Again, it’s interesting that Bunnings is taking a DIFM-flavored approach by getting rid of Homebase’s soft furnishings and really pushing “harder” product ranges such as tools and building materials.

Finally, the housing market will continue to keep everyone on their toes, Brexit will affect us one way or another, and we may go back to DIY-ing instead of DIFM-ing. But the British do love spending money on improving their homes, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Looking for other DIY or DIFM ideas? Check out our blog.

Written by Del Thebaud

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