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4 Takeaways from Yesterday’s Miserable New Construction Report

by Peter Thomas Ricci

The Census Bureau’s latest new construction report is not pretty, but as with all housing matters nowadays, there’s more than meets the eye.

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Here’s the information that you’ve likely seen, regarding the Census Bureau’s latest report on new construction – housing starts had a spectacularly bad January.

Indeed, the numbers are not pretty: starts fell 16 percent from December to January, and were actually down 2 percent from Jan. 2013; that’s the largest year-over-year drop since Sept. 2011, and single-family housing starts are now at their lowest level in 17 months.

Of course, there’s much more to the Census Bureau’s report than those screaming headlines, so here are four facts to help you cut through the noise:

1. Monthly Volatility Masks Long-Term Trends – Though January’s numbers are nasty, they hide the fact that over the last few months, construction’s numbers are actually quite good. For instance, though starts were down by monthly and yearly measures, when we look at the three-month averages, overall housing starts are up 11 percent from last year, while single-family starts are up 9 percent; similarly, the six-month average for all starts is up 10 percent.

2. A Multifamily World – Sure, single-family housing starts are up 9 percent over the last three months, but multifamily starts are up 17 percent over that same period, showing yet again that multifamily starts, which currently make up a third of all housing starts, remain the leader in the new construction recovery. One key fact, though, that’s worth pointing out – the vast majority of those starts have been for rental units.

3. Whether the Weather Had Any Impact – Analysts have been mainly blaming the New Year’s extreme weather conditions for the weak housing starts data, and on the surface that would seem to be the case: in the South and Midwest, the two regions most affected by the weather, starts fell by 3.6 percent and a whopping 48.9 percent, respectively, while they increased in the West by 10.7 percent. Yet…in the Northeast, where the weather similarly sucked, starts increased by 4.1 percent, so the weather cannot be fully blamed.

4. This isn’t the Apocalypse – Some of the more hysterical headlines have suggested that January’s report shows trouble on the new construction front, but such spasmodic reports miss out on two key points: one, that bad weather does not erase construction activity, but merely postpone it (so in other words, we should see bounce backs in future months); and two, building permits were up 2.4 percent year-over-year, while housing completions were up 4.6 percent monthly and 13.1 percent yearly (and single-family completions were up 3.0 percent monthly).

If construction was in trouble, wouldn’t the numbers be more…uniformly bad?

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