POCKET UTILITY: Builders and contractors are finding lots of useful smart phone applications for their work. Red Laser (left) scans barcodes and then reports who's selling the same product at what price. Velux (center) created a tool that can show how its skylights would look in a customer's home. And Calculated Industries (right) offers a smartphone version of its Construction Master Pro calculator.

Frank Curtis owns a small homebuilding and remodeling company in Little Rock, Ark. For three years, he's done about 80% of his computer work on his iPhone. He uses it to order materials, check on deliveries, research products, investigate prices for estimates, send text messages and e-mails, and take jobsite photos. Once he snaps the shots, he uses HP's iPrint photo app to edit and wirelessly print them directly from his phone to Hewlett Packard printers connected to a local wireless network.

In one device, he has his contact list, e-mail, construction calculator, GPS navigation system, and social networking connections. But his favorite iPhone tool is "Jesus Calling," a daily devotional that he says helps him "deal with all of the stress in this business."

Oh, and he can make phone calls with it, too.

As builders and remodelers look for ways to cut costs and increase efficiency, the value of smart phone and tablet technology is becoming more and more apparent. In 2004, the ability to communicate electronically with suppliers didn't even figure into the list of factors that ProSales listed when it asked what influenced a pro's decision in selecting a supplier. But by 2007, 28% of remodelers rated it at least a 9 on a 10-point scale. In our 2010 survey, 29% did so.

Nearly 85% of the remodelers contacted in the 2010 ProSales survey said they use the Internet to search suppliers or prices–another major feature of smart phones and tablets. Forty-two percent of respondents said they get the majority of their product information online.

Jeff Rainey, president and CEO of Home Equity Builders in Great Falls, Va., has always used technology in his business. Years ago, he started the Remodelers Information Technology Group within the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

"I'm an IBM brat," he says. "I've always been fascinated by it and intrigued by it if it can help." When the first smart phones came out, he thought he would roll them out to his company. "It was a $7,000 disaster," he says. "The learning curve was horrendous." After that, he bought tablets for his primary supervisors in the field, but the modem speeds weren't fast enough. He tried tablets loaded with pre-formatted forms. "We sent them every form and document we used," he says. It didn't work.

Then Apple introduced the iPad and the light bulb came on.

"Until the iPad, we've never been able to dumb it down enough so it can be used by the remodeler in the field who is not quite as tech-savvy as someone else," Rainey says. "I'm not being condescending; it's got to be very simple where it's just one more thing for people in the field to use."

Rainey keeps his portfolio on his iPad for presentations, uses it to look up schematics when he's ordering materials, sends checklists to his personnel in the field, takes pictures with it, and even uses it for installation videos in the field. "YouTube is really helpful," he says.

Wow Factor

Rainey also finds the iPad tremendously valuable in working with clients. He can show them projects in progress and access his references easily.

"There's a wow factor when you meet with a client and you can put your finger on something immediately," he says. "You're into the technology they're using. You're not just some guy in a pick-up truck."

Mark Pearsall was one of the industry's early technology adopters. The vice president of sales and marketing for Berkeley, Calif.-based Truitt & White installed the dealer's first computer in the mid-1980s. As his customers started buying computers, they asked him if there was a way their computers could talk to his. Pearsall developed a system that let builders dial in by modem to check pricing so they could write estimates.