Building Materials Supplier, AGC Economist Attest to COVID Lumber Price Spikes

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By KERRY SMITH, Editor, St. Louis Construction News and Review Magazine

A Metro East building materials supplier with 72 locations across four states says the latest analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America is accurate: Builders and consumers are hurting from un precedented increases in the cost of lumber.

Robert Plummer, chairman and CEO of R.P. Lumber Company, Inc., says record price increases of more than 200 percent in lumber and panel products are not only choking the supply chain but also affecting commercial and residential contractors as well as consumers.

The life-long industry veteran’s observations track with AGC Chief Economist Ken Simonson’s latest analysis – released Feb. 17 – that prices for materials and services used in construction and contractors’ bid prices have diverged sharply since April 2020. A government index measuring the selling price for materials and services used in nonresidential construction increased 2.5 percent from December to January and a whopping 10.7 percent since the extreme price increases.

“Current conditions are harming contractors on existing projects and making it difficult to bid new work at a profitable level,” Simonson said, noting that the PPI for new nonresidential construction is a measure of what contractors say they would charge to erect five types of nonresidential buildings. The PPI increased only .2 percent since April. “While contractors have kept bids nearly flat until now, project owners and budget officials should anticipate the prospect that contractors will have to pass along their higher costs in upcoming bids,” he added. “Since this government data was collected more than a month ago, numerous sources indicate price increases have continued or even accelerated since then.”

Plummer attests that this is indeed the scenario. In addition to its 44-year history of serving as a building materials supplier, R.P. Lumber operates a truss plant and has retail home centers across Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and Wyoming.

“In all these years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Plummer. “We buy and sell a tremendous amount of lumber, drywall and roofing product – thousands of semitrailers’ worth – every year. It’s shocking where the price of lumber has gone since the (COVID) pandemic began, particularly on lumber and panels products such as OSBs (oriented strand board), ZipWalls and plywood. One year ago, we were paying somewhere in the $300 range per thousand board feet for 7/16ths (7/16-inch by 4 feet by 8 feet). Today we’re paying slightly more than $900 for the identical material.”

Even precut lumber is not immune from mills’ drastic price increases since COVID hit. Plummer says a 2×4-foot precut that cost in the $3 range in February 2020 now costs in the $6.50 to $7 range.

No doubt supply chains were impacted by the West Coast wildfires of 2020 that consumed huge forests of cedar, spruce and fir, and tariffs for product entering the U.S. from Canada has also played a role, Plummer says. But beyond these conditions, the severity of material increases continue to stymie lumberyards and contractors while hitting owners and homeowners’ bottom lines.

“This week we’ve heard of another 20 percent price increase in drywall, the second such increase this year, and it will take effect in March/April,” said Plummer. “In addition to lumber price increases, we’ve experienced three increases in the cost of metals, from steel studs to soffits, metal panels and I-beams. And we’re anticipating a second increase this year on wiring and on roofing materials. Builders will forward these increases through the pipeline. They may be protected on one job if they have locked-in pricing, but they may feel it on the next job.”

The entire industry is buying more building materials from Europe, according to Plummer. “Euro-Premium, a spruce product, is shipped into the U.S. more cheaply than we can many times buy a comparable product domestically right now,” he said. “That’s a reflection of how volatile the domestic supply chain is right now.”

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