Surging lumber prices turn wood into a hot commodity for homebuilders and thieves 

Between high demand, all-time high prices and high interest from thieves, plain old lumber has emerged as the hottest commodity of this year’s home, deck and fence construction season.

“In the last year we were buying the same product right here for $10, $11 a sheet, now we’re paying in the neighbourhood of $90 a sheet,” said Garth Babcock, a construction manager for Akash Homes, which builds close to 250 homes each year in Alberta.

“It’s unheard of.” 

The two-by-fours used in construction are bought by builders in bulk, with the price for 1,000 board feet typically being in the $400 range. But not anymore. 

“We’d take a spike in the past, maybe $600, $800 a thousand board feet. Now it’s over $2,200 and we don’t know where it’s going,” he said.

An 1,800-square-foot duplex that cost $25,000 to frame last year now costs three times as much, he said.

What happened?

Shortages were already being felt last summer after several mills in British Columbia were closed due to a shortage of wood fibre after a mountain pine beetle infestation and wildfires. Many North American mills curtailed production temporarily earlier in 2020 because of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Then, a nation of people stuck at home started building more decks and fences. People renovated to accommodate their new work-from-home lives — not just in Canada but in the U.S. as well.

And that’s left mills scrambling to get logs, lumber yards short on supply, and contractors forced to pay more for what supply is available.

It’s also brought out the thieves.

Nail it down 

Akash Homes has been hit at several job sites this spring, causing losses of around $100,000. After dark, thieves use on-site machinery to load the massive bundles of wood onto their own trailers, Babcock said, 

“They’re hot-wiring zoom booms on sites, taking product from maybe two or three builders in the same neighbourhood,” he said. 

Garth Babcock marks sheets of plywood belonging to Akash Homes. The paint would make the wood identifiable if it shows up on another job site or is advertised for sale online. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

In response, Akash Homes has ramped up security, installing cameras at project sites and marking materials with coloured spray paint to help identify the wood if turns up at another job site or for sale online.   

Securing product is also a major concern for those outside the home-building industry. 

Barb MacTavish and her husband Scott run Wild Rose Fencing and Decks. They recently installed security cameras at their warehouse to keep an eye on their fence board and decking material.

‘Never been this busy before’

More people staying home during the pandemic has meant a busy season ahead, regardless of the higher cost for materials, MacTavish said. 

MacTavish said she quoted a new fence for a customer last summer at $10,000, now it’s $14,000.  

“I really thought it was going to be a tough year from what I saw with the increases, but we’ve never been this busy before.

Fence boards that sold for $4 each last year are twice that today. In the past, suppliers would hold a quoted price for a month but that has dropped to days, she said.

Scott MacTavish, co-owner of Wild Rose Fencing and Decks ,puts the finishing touches on a retaining wall in the community of Brookview. (Peter Evans/CBC)

It’s the same story on the home-building side. 

Babcock says some of their properties are sold before the foundation is even poured. 

It’s good for business, but now there’s another issue looming. 

“Supplies are short, and we’re getting told in the future, not too far down the road we may not get as much wood as we need,” he said. “So that makes another problem for us.”

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