Robert Reichek remembers what sunrooms looked like when he got into the business 20 years ago: Not much. “Mobile home add-ons,” says the owner of Four Seasons Sunrooms of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Larry Chavez Jr., owner of Sunrooms Plus, a Four Seasons franchise in New Mexico and Arizona, says the sunroom of old was a “cheap plastic product on the back of the house.” Consumers often viewed them as unsightly — a leaky eyesore.
What's changed? Well, everything.
“Fifteen years ago, this was a different industry,” says Joe Ronzino, general manager of Four Seasons corporate store on Long Island. Four Seasons is the country's largest sunroom company, and the store its biggest customer. The products offered by today's sunroom dealers include climate-controlled, year-round rooms. Upper–price point designs function as extensions of the kitchen, family room, or other areas. Sunrooms have foundations, electrical, plumbing, in-floor heating or another HVAC system. In effect, the industry has evolved from offering covered patios to built space, although patio rooms, or enclosures, remain the bread and butter for many companies.
“What we install now can be considered a true addition to the house,” Chavez says. “There's been a significant transition to building a product that can be used year-round.”
Consumers, too, perceive sunroom products differently. That is, as additional — and affordable — living space, a prefab alternative to stick-built additions. The hottest products he sells, Ronzino points out, are $25,000 to $45,000 mid-range all-season rooms, often to empty-nesters, although he's seeing more and more interest from young people as well.
Growing or Maturing? Between stick-built additions with lots of glass constructed by general contractors and the distinctive aluminum, wood, or vinyl units produced by such companies as Four Seasons, TEMO, PGT, Gorell, and others and installed by dealer networks, lots of sun-rooms are built every year in the United States. That's for certain. But just how many, no one claims to know. The National Sunroom Association (NSA) doesn't track sales. “We've heard that sunrooms are a $1 billion industry, a $1.5 billion industry, a $2 billion industry,” says Ross Lederer, director of business development for Betterliving Craft-Bilt, a Pennsylvania sunroom maker. “The bottom line is that most companies are privately held, and nobody shares that information.”
Manufacturers and dealers, however, say the market is growing, and a NAHB Remodelors Council survey ranked sunroom additions in the top seven home improvement projects.
Mike Luttkus, a trainer at PGT University, the educational arm of the Florida window and sunroom maker, says sunrooms now make up about 15% of PGT's overall sales and “numbers and sales have increased for us over the last five years.”
All that makes sense, because today there are more products and more people selling them.
In addition, the number of potential customers is expanding. Where window, siding, and roofing sales target a customer base broad enough to include just about anyone who owns a home, sunrooms appeal to a mature demographic. One manufacturer says the market includes anyone 50 or older who owns a home at least 20 years old or who has lived in their home for 20 years or more.
Yet another describes a profile of its purchasing customers as a bell curve, with 25- to 35-year-olds on one side and older, retired people on the other side of the curve. Homeowners 45 to 65, from all social classes, occupy the big bump in the middle. That's good news if you're selling sunrooms, because this portion of the population is growing the fastest.
Chavez, who three years ago expanded his operation into Arizona's capital, says he likes to compare the 30 to 40 sunrooms built in Phoenix every month with the 5,000 new homes constructed there. To him, that means “5,000 new prospects coming on board. And they're down the line somewhere.”
Permit Me, Please Of course those houses are only down the line if sunroom dealers can get the permits to build the rooms. Last September, the NSA sponsored a meeting for its members at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Almost every item on the day-and-a-half-long program focused on regulatory issues, such as permitting and code compliance.
Permitting was never much of a problem when sunrooms were simple glass-enclosed structures designed for limited use. “Ten years ago, less than 20% of structures were even permitted,” says Dale Thornberry, who owned sunroom companies for 20 years and is today a consultant to the industry. Today permitting has grown both complex and frustrating for dealers and their customers. “Our biggest challenge now is the permit turn,” says Ronzino. “Getting through that cycle quickly and efficiently to turn our jobs out.”
Delays brought on by permit difficulties can cause contracts signed in January to take months to complete. That, in turn, results in “a lot of flack” from customers, Ronzino says. They expect him to know how to expedite the process swiftly.
Permitting is also more expensive and more time-consuming than it used to be. “There's more awareness of sunroom products by regulatory officials,” Chavez says. “In part, because of the increased volume. But it's also because they've had trouble with sunroom people not pulling permits or not having the appropriate engineering.”
All this has come as something of a shock to sunroom dealers used to walking into their local municipality and leaving 15 minutes later with a permit. “We were operating under the radar for a long time,” says Rick Edwards, president of Custom Patio Rooms, a sunroom manufacturer and installer with eight franchises. “Especially in an area like Pittsburgh, which isn't growing that fast.” In the past four or five years, Edwards says, things have changed. In markets like Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, “they're watching everything that's going on, and inspectors are really well aware of the product. Now a lot of them want specific drawings for a specific job with an engineer's signature on it.”
Mike Fischer, technical director for the NSA, says manufacturers have responded to inspector vigilance by upgrading their products. Today's sunrooms feature impact-resistant glass, stronger roof systems for snow load, aluminum framing with thermal breaks, and the full-range of energy-saving technology already prevalent in windows, such as gas-filled double glazing and low-E coatings.
“As the industry's become more technologically advanced,” Fischer points out, “performance has improved.” But dealers will have to get used to operating in a different regulatory environment. “The sunroom industry is going to have to face up to the fact that we're a room addition and we've got to meet all the building codes,” Thornberry says.