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This area behind the existing Town Pump store and along Lenore Lane, pictured here in spring 2021, shows the beginning stages of the fill work where the new store will be located, according to Dan Sampson, construction and development manager with Town Pump.  This is as far as they can go with the dirt on site and the rest of the fill will be imported material.  As the remainder of the fill is brought into the site, it will be placed and compacted in lifts until  the fill work is completed, according to Sampson. (Diana McFarland/Boulder Monitor)

A nationwide increase in the price of building materials has hit home in Jefferson County, challenging builders, contractors, suppliers, local governments and prospective homeowners. 

"Some guys are 70 years old and said they’ve never seen anything like it," Steve Marks, owner of Marks Lumber in Clancy, said about the increase in the demand for lumber.

Marks Lumber specializes in what Marks described colloquially as "cool-looking boards" and not "just a plain two-by-four." Much of what they produce is specialty timber products that are used for flooring, siding and custom materials that create what he called "a mountain modern look."

"We did raise prices," Marks said, "but not to the same extent the market has gone up."

Brian Gemar, a co-owner of Clancy-based Blue Mountain Builders, said that in his experience prices were climbing at least monthly, if not daily.

"Seven-sixteenths OSB [Oriented Strand Board] was about $10.50 last year at this time—it is around $60 a sheet now," Gemar explained. OSB is an engineered wood panel similar to plywood or particleboard.

Random Lengths, a wood products tracking firm, reported that the cost of lumber increased 340 percent from 2020.

Marks attributed the price increase in part to the fact that many mills had a low lumber inventory prior to the pandemic and were not prepared to meet rising demand. Marks also cited the closure of some U.S. mills due to the pandemic, though many Montana mills remained open after being deemed essential businesses.

Initially, Marks Lumber laid off some employees during the beginning of the pandemic, only to bring them back as demand began to pick up.

"I couldn’t hire more [people] if I wanted to," he said, citing a low supply of, and high demand for, mill workers.

Gemar said finding skilled labor has been an issue for him as well.

"We have been constantly hiring carpenters and laborers for the past year," he said. "Skilled tradesmen are almost impossible to hire right now."

For Gemar, rising prices and demand for material is a constant challenge.

"Materials are hard to find," he said. "We now have to order materials that would normally take four weeks [to arrive] about 12 weeks before they are needed."

And it isn’t just lumber increasing in price. Gemar said that all the materials and services needed to build a home are on the rise.

"Steel is up at least 25 percent. Subcontractors like plumbers, electricians, and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning installers are seeing large price increases as well," Gemar said.

But the price increases aren't just a challenge to contractors, builders and production companies: Rising costs are also posing issues for homeowners, according to Gemar. 

"We are constantly having to update quotes as material cost continues to rise," he said. "Most quotes are only good for 30 days but it can take 90–120 days to get a construction loan closed, so by the time our clients have their construction loan in place, materials have usually moved 20–40 percent."

According to an April statement from the National Association of Home Builders, "soaring lumber prices that have tripled over the past 12 months have caused the price of an average new single-family home to increase by $35,872."

Local commercial and infrastructure projects are feeling the squeeze as well. The Clancy Water and Sewer District's proposed centralized well system was estimated, when proposed in 2018, to cost $3.1 million dollars. Now, it and similar projects may need to adjust their calculations. 

Collette Anderson, a project engineer and architect at Great West Engineering, which is working on the Clancy project, wrote in an email that "we have been seeing higher construction prices on recent [project bids]. It’s very difficult to get pipe and many of the other materials needed for these types of projects right now, which we believe is driving prices up. Contractors are busy right now, and with all the funding available for infrastructure, that will probably continue."

Similarly, Boulder Hot Springs Inn grant writer Annika Hirmke said that she is unsure of what the $498,500 from the Montana Department of Commerce’s Historic Preservation Grant program will cover in terms of renovations. Their undisclosed original estimate will likely be less than the current cost, and Hirmke hoped prices would not continue to rise.

Anderson shared a similar sentiment: "We hope to see this stabilize soon, but it’s difficult to know for sure when that might happen."

Marks and Gemar didn't foresee a decrease in price or demand anytime soon.

"I think this year will continue to be strong. If material pricing does not settle down and interest rates rise, I think you will see more families get priced out of the housing market," Gemar said.

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