ORLANDO, Fla. - Real estate analysts say the nation's housing market is slowing from the breakneck construction pace of the last few years. But you wouldn't have known that from walking through the exhibit halls of this year's International Builders' Show, held here Jan. 11-14.

This cupola was part of the display for Sunnyvale, Texas-based Beach Sheet Metal Co. Inc.


According to the National Association of Home Builders, a Washington, D.C., trade group that sponsors the show, a record 105,000 people packed Orlando's Orange County Convention Center during the four-day event.

The show's 1,600 exhibitors, representing some of the biggest names in residential construction, took up more than 1.5 million square feet of floor space in two convention halls - ensuring attendees had sore feet.

It also explained why at least one exhibitor was selling cushioning shoe inserts.

With so many companies' products - from doors to windows and even artificial grass - on display, attendees who worked in the HVAC and sheet metal industry might have had to search a bit to find products for their occupations, but it wasn't too hard. A number of makers of metal roofing, furnaces, air conditioners and tools were hawking their products.

Thermaflex's busy booth showed off the company's flexible duct products.

Products

Here's a rundown of some of the new items on display.

Gerard Roofing Technologies of Leesburg, Fla., was promoting its standing-seam roof, which it says is ideal for high-wind areas and is energy efficient. Available in 24-gauge and 26-gauge versions, the roof can be coated in 24 colors and it meets several building codes, officials say.

NuTone Inc. announced that the noise level of its QT Ultra Silent fan line has been reduced. The QTXEN 80-cfm fan now emits just 0.3 scones, and the 110-cfm version produces just 0.9 scones, according to NuTone officials. The fans are especially quiet when connected to 6-inch ductwork, they add.

Power tool manufacturer DeWalt launched a reciprocating saw line in 12- and 13-amp versions. Company officials say the saws are ideal for those who perform HVAC work. The saws have a 1 1/8-inch stroke length and a variable-speed trigger. A forged wobble plate helps the saws resist damage from drops.

Rheem Manufacturing Co.'s air-conditioning division was promoting several new products, among them a group of air handlers designed for warmer regions where a traditional gas furnace is not needed. Rheem is marketing them under the Prestige Series, Classic Plus and Classic Series names. The company's Ruud group is calling the units the Ultra Series, High Achiever and Achiever Series. All units can be installed horizontally left or right, and for upflow or downflow use.

Architectural metals company Rheinzink America Inc. was showing its roofing and façade products. Rheinzink offers double standing-seam roofing products, which the company says are ideal for uses where the roof angle is 25 degrees or less, with a minimum slope of 3 degrees to 5 degrees. Concave or convex curves are possible, along with other architectural details. Rheinzink also offers batten seams and angled vertical seams.

Minnesota's Malco Products Inc. was demonstrating the TurboShear HD, the heavy-duty version of its regular TurboShear, designed to cut metal up to 18 gauge. Its larger, wide-open jaws cut layered metal seams, including the ribbed seams of spiral ductwork, officials say. It also makes angled cuts.

Robert Bosch Tool Corp. recently released the RZ18V, an 18-volt version of its popular cordless RotoZip spiral saw. The saw uses Bosch's Bluecore batteries, which the company says means it will last up to 50 percent longer than before.

For HVAC contractors, it offers attachments that make cutting ductwork easy, officials add. It tops out at 30,000 rpm.

International Comfort Products announced the PS90-DV gas furnace line, which will be marketed under the Comfortmaker brand. Designed to be easy to install, the furnace is certified for direct two-vent piping. It has a single-stage gas valve and ignition control. It comes with 24- and 115-volt connections to make attaching humidifiers easier.

National Association of Home Builders chief economist David Seiders predicts residential building and sales will slow a little. However, the market will remain strong, he told attendees during a Jan. 11 presentation.

Housing market to remain strong, economists say

If you're a residential HVAC contractor - especially those in new-construction work - you have reason to be optimistic about business prospects for the coming year.

That was the message from economists who spoke at the Builders' Show's Jan. 11 seminar on the future of the U.S. housing market.

While the economy has to cool a little - double-digit appreciation in home values isn't sustainable forever - the market is strong and will remain so, according to David F. Seiders, the NAHB's chief economist.

He sees "very, very good growth for this economy. It will be the fifth year of expansion for this economy, believe it or not."

Long-term interest rates, which have slowly moved higher in the last year, will probably go up a bit, but not enough to hurt the housing market, Seiders said.

"In that kind of environment, the housing market should do quite well," he said. "This one I view as a peaceful process," a return to a supply and demand balance.

However, for a seller, that means the annual appreciation in housing prices - more than 12 percent in markets on the coasts - will drop by half.

"I think some slowing down was inevitable," he said. "The real current drag on the housing market is the affordability issue.

"The long-term housing outlook is great."

David Berson agreed. Berson is a vice president and chief economist with Fannie Mae, which deals in selling Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages to investors.

He also sees another record year for housing in 2006, although Berson echoed Seiders in saying the prices in some markets are getting too high.

"We think in parts of the country, especially where prices have gone up the fastest, people simply can't afford to buy," he said.

By comparison, other parts of the country still in recession, including struggling Midwest states such as Michigan, the market is much slower.

Marylee Putnam told contractors they need to stay calm and be respectful to customers who are upset.

Dealing with difficult customers not so hard, speaker says

The crowd for Marylee Putnam's Jan. 12 seminar, "Dealing with Difficult Customers," would have been standing room only - if the fire marshal had allowed it.

But Orlando has strict fire laws on room capacity, so everyone had to find a seat. Those that could not were turned away.

Putnam, who is the education and credentialing manager for the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association, began her presentation for those who remained by asking how many often deal with problem customers. Almost everyone in the audience raised their hands.

It's not always your fault, she said. Putnam acknowledged there are some customers who can't be pleased. And she pointed out that for every customer who tells you he or she is upset, most don't - 96 percent, according to her figures. But they will tell nine other people, on average.

"The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer" - understand them, and you'll have less stress, she said.

The first step is to find out just what customers want from you.

"You waste less time when you know exactly what the customer's expectations are - and sometimes, we just don't ask," she said. "Conflict arises when people are not getting what they need or want but are actively trying to do so."

That doesn't mean you have to always give in, especially to unreasonable demands.

"We know we can't always say yes to the customer, but how we say it" makes a difference, Putnam said.

Don't act like you don't care or just brush them off.

There are ways you can act that will also diffuse the situation, she added. For example, if a customer is nervous or very upset, "you need to respond in a supportive manner." Use a lower tone of voice, especially if the customer is yelling at you. However, don't overdo it: Sounding too slow or almost whispering will make angry customers more upset.

Also, don't stand too close or directly face to face with them. That invades personal space and increases anger. About 18 inches apart is recommended. Stand at a right angle to them.

And when responding to questions, use the customer's name. It has a calming influence. You might even try using a customer's first name - but ask permission.