Credit: Photo: courtesy Maria Kurtz

Scott Barr, owner and general manager of Southwest Exteriors, in Texas, was surprised a few months ago when he went to check on a siding job and found the crew asleep in the flower bed. They were taking a nap, he says.

That particular crew's previous experience involved siding new houses, but with new-home construction down — 27% in San Antonio — they had sought work with the replacement company. That particular job, their third, was also their last with Southwest Exteriors.

TONS OF TRADES The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 47,000 people lost their jobs in home building in 2006. And, as far back as last May, David Rosenberg, chief North American economist for Merrill Lynch, was predicting that employment in new residential construction would fall 20% in 2007.

Many home improvement companies suddenly find roofing, siding, painting, and other crews available. “We've had our choice,” says Scott Holtzhauer, president of Prince William Home Improvement, Woodbridge, Va., which specializes in windows, siding, kitchens, and decks. Some home improvement companies have the work and will take the chance. Some find, as Barr did, that “the mindset is different,” and that such crews are not a good fit.

This past fall, Jeff Head, owner of Head's Roofing Contractors, in Evansville, Ind., says that as many as six subcontractors a day applied for installation work at his company. Head took a chance on one sub who had extensive references, and ended up regretting it. “He low-nailed the shingles and didn't caulk his lines,” Head says. “He wanted to do a siding job for us too, but I told him I didn't think it would be a good idea.”

YES, BUT. . . Chris Edwards, president of Total Remodeling Corp., in Union, N.J., says he is “seeing a lot of people who formerly worked in new construction coming into our marketplace.” He points out that hiring the crews that come knocking on his door could potentially produce a margin savings because they will work for less per square or per unit. But, Edwards says, “It's not worth losing the core group of people who have been with us a long time.”

In addition, he says, hiring such crews carries with it the risk of increasing service calls in the long run. “When new construction comes back, the new-construction people will go back to that.”

Barr says the flower-bed incident is not wholly representative of what's available. “It's a much easier market now than it was two years ago, but it's still difficult to find guys qualified to be good crew leaders.” Barr says he'll need them — the company, which completed more than $5 million in window and siding jobs in 2007, is budgeting to hit $5.6 million this year.