Home-improvement work in southern New Jersey will pick up this year, and not just because of storm damage.

Local contractors say they were getting more calls for business months before Hurricane Sandy flooded first floors along the coastline, reflecting a nationwide trend toward more discretionary spending on home construction.

“The past five years have been rather slow, and over the last six months activity has definitely increased,” said Ross Denham, owner of Ross Denham Construction in Middle Township. “I’m as busy as I’ve ever been.”

A report released in January by the Joint Center For Housing Studies of Harvard University found that after years of decline, the remodeling market is pulling out of a prolonged downturn from the market peak in 2007.

Spending on home improvements and repairs reached $275 billion in 2011, the latest year in the study, which was down 16 percent from the market peak four years earlier.

In 2012, though, the center estimates that spending on home improvement increased

9 percent as house prices in most metropolitan markets rose, restoring value lost during the housing market crash.

At the same time, housing construction starts rose 30 percent last year, according to the report, and there were more than 4 million existing home sales for the first time since 2007.

In the short term, pent-up demand for improvement projects is finally being released as people feel more comfortable about their financial positions and are finding low-interest rates, experts said.

In the long term, baby boomers have shown more interest in remodeling than past generations, while the so-called echo boom generation, the children of baby boomers, moving into the home-buying market over the next decade will create even more demand.

Lately, home-remodeling companies are seeing all these trends through a more simple figure: the number of phone calls they receive.

“We’re just getting a lot of calls, especially in the past month,” said Tony Christaldi, owner of Christaldi Builders, also based in Middle Township.

Christaldi said he and other contractors have impatiently been waiting for this turnaround.

“I’ve been in this business almost 50 years,” he said. “We went through this kind of turndown three or four times in my life, and this is one of the worst, but they always came back. This one’s coming back strong.”

Of course, Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the shore has generated business for some remodelers, but builders say they were already noticing increased activity in the months before the storm hit at the end of October.

“Have we gained some more business because of the storm? Yes, but is that my primary boost of business? No,” said Dot Taccarino, owner of Asbury Kitchen and Bath in Ocean City. “People were already starting to remodel.”

Taccarino said many people are choosing to improve their homes rather than moving elsewhere, what the Harvard report calls “aging in place.”

“They’re not going to maybe get what they possibly thought for their property, so instead of selling and taking a loss they’re going to remodel,” Taccarino said.

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