Not since the earthquake has business been this good.

That's what some hardware stores are finding anyway. With the economy still on an upswing and home values rising notwithstanding Wall Street's recent volatility homeowners are buying plumbing, paint and fixtures like never before. At least not since the 1994 Northridge quake.

"There's definitely been a real uptrend all this year, especially since March," said Dean Wilson, general manager of the 60-year-old Koontz Hardware in West Hollywood. "We see a lot of particularly high-end people re-fixturing new knobs, cabinet pulls. That's up quite a bit."

The good times appear to be widespread for hardware stores, from Echo Park to West Hollywood to Culver City to South Central to the San Fernando Valley.

"The hardware business is directly proportional to the economy. When the economy is better and more people are working and interest rates are lower, our business definitely swings up," said Rob Barber, owner of Stellar True Value Hardware Co. in Culver City. Business is the best it's been since the quake, he said.

Sales have risen in the past 12 months by a little less than 5 percent at Economy True Value Hardware in North Hills, said owner David Swedlove.

"(Customers) are back to replacing faucets. There's a lot of plumbing, electrical and garden. Where people let things slide, now they're fixing them," Swedlove said. "They feel better about the general financial climate."

Several other store managers said they, too, are seeing people who put off certain upgrades during the recession now deciding the time is finally right for reinvestment especially with housing prices hitting their highest level since 1991. Many customers are people who have recently bought homes in areas where the housing stock is older and often needs some work.

"A lot more people have been moving into the neighborhood that have a little bit of extra money, and they're fixing their houses up. The neighborhood is rejuvenating," said Jerry Laska, owner of Peerless Hardware in Echo Park.

There's also a certain amount of speculation investment by those who want to take advantage of the rising market by buying fixer-uppers to resell at a premium.

"They'll find a decent neighborhood with a crummy house and fix it up. That's where they're spending more," said Kenny Tashman, vice president of Tashman Screens & Hardware in West Hollywood. "As the real estate market has improved, it's picked up."

While business is not as strong for Tashman as it was in the aftermath of the earthquake, it has picked up in the latter half of the year.

Sales have also picked up for Burris Ace Hardware, which is at the northern edge of South Central L.A. an area with lots of turnover in the housing stock and do-it-yourself improvements.

"In the past two months, there's been a huge increase of walk-in clientele buying materials for their houses drywall, cement, building materials. A lot of people are modernizing garages into bedrooms," said Derek Burris, manager and part owner.

Also making home improvement more feasible is the fact that interest rates are relatively low.

"They're refinancing, getting a better deal and they may say, 'Let's put that kitchen in or lighting or paint.' Everyone has a laundry list," Tashman said. "People didn't do things for many years and now they have money in their pockets."

Another factor that has contributed to brisker sales, particularly for paint, is El Ni & #324;o. The heavy rains may have dampened business at the time, but they also left many homeowners with leaks and other problems that necessitated a trip to the hardware store. And many want to paint and repair problems before the rains hit again this year.

"El Ni & #324;o helped us," Barber said.

At Koontz Hardware, Wilson said sales in the shop's housewares department which purveys appliances, towel bars and cookware are up 30 percent since 1994. While those kinds of items might not have been a priority for homeowners after the quake, plumbing supplies certainly were.

The plumbing department did a roaring business after the quake. Still, plumbing sales were up 10 percent in August, setting a new record, Wilson said.

"People always know bathrooms and kitchens pay off in the value of your house. If you don't have confidence your house is a good investment, you probably wouldn't do that," he said.

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