As the island’s building boom marches on, Nantucket’s lumberyards and contractors are navigating a nationwide lumber shortage and massive price spikes that some are calling unprecedented.
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Tony Shepley, the owner of Shepley Wood Products on Lovers Lane. “I’ve been doing this for 43 years, and this particular cycle over the last year is something different than any other cycle we’ve ever seen. It’s lasted longer and been way stronger. It’s all about supply and demand.”
When construction ground to a halt in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic began, sawmills responded by shutting down and furloughing workers. But the rapid resurgence of the housing market has the industry scrambling and sent prices soaring. Random-length lumber futures hit a record high of $1,615 last week, up sevenfold from early April 2020. Nationwide, the lumber shortage and high prices are delaying new construction starts, and costs are being passed on to consumers with new single family homes costing $36,000 more on average as a result.
“I’ve never seen a spike like this,” said Stephen Cheney, of Cheney Custom Homes. “And a spike so universal across the framing package of a house.”
On Nantucket, where the homebuilding industry has been white hot over the past six months, suppliers and builders say the challenges are very real, but they are adapting. The high prices are being passed on to consumers, and sticker shock has not been a deterrent.
“If this was a different time, and the price of materials was spiking and the stock market was on the decline, people would be saying let’s pause,” said Cheney. “Now they’re just saying, well that’s unfortunate, but we understand the current market.”
Walt Spokowski, president of Marine Lumber on Orange Street, said the lumber shortage has been a struggle, but for the most part, the company has managed to stay ahead of the situation. Marine’s lumberyard is generally well stocked, he said, but the conditions are extreme and in some cases, Marine is buying product without even knowing the price in advance because they know it will sell given the current island market.
“A year ago, if you had told me what we’d be selling lumber for now, I’d say that’s not going to happen. These are conditions we’ve never seen,” Spokowski said. “We’ve taken the long view to support the island economy. The demand is there, and we’ve gotten better at maneuvering through it. In some cases we’re buying product without know the prices of the product. It’s an extreme case, but we might have to do that.”
In a sign of the times, Island Lumber Company posted to Instagram (and later deleted) that it “has had so many calls for deliveries lately that we currently have a wait time of about a week. Please leave enough time when placing your order for our guys to deliver!”
The National Association of Homebuilders is now calling on the Biden administration to “temporarily remove” the 9 percent tariff on Canadian lumber imposed by former President Trump’s administration. Canada is one of the primary sources of Nantucket’s white cedar shingles that adorn most houses on the island.
“It’s like a gold rush mentality – no one wants to be last in line,” Shepley said. “We sell more white cedar shingles than any company on the plantet. Demand is far greater than supply. People are literally following trucks around. They say ‘I saw some cedar shingles.’ We worry about theft now.”
Indeed, lumber theft is being reported in Canada and the United States. On the island, however, Nantucket Police Department Lieutenant Angus MacVicar said reports of theft from job sites have so far been minimal.
“I’m happy to report that we have not had a lot of construction material theft,” MacVicar said.
Looking ahead, Nantucket’s lumberyards and builders say they are unsure what to expect in the future. While past history would suggest a cycle that would mean prices should come down, the current environment is such an anomaly, it gives them pause in predicting what’s to come.
“Our supplier partners have been faced with challenges on all fronts, including raw materials, labor, processing and fulfillment logistics,” Spokowski said. “This combined with unprecedented demand has strained every aspect of their business to meet our needs. This new reality has led to widespread price increases, and we expect more to come. Our team has been aggressive and creative in their approach to acquire product to keep up with on-island demand.”