Housing starts break the 1 million barrier

Housing StartsEnlarge GraphHousing starts are a critical predictor of future homebuilder sales

Housing starts are released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Analysts use the information to anticipate future production for the homebuilders, future demand for raw materials, and labor costs. This data will even affect the forecasts for home-related retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Housing starts cover the number of privately-owned housing units that were started in a given period. For multi-family units, each individual unit is considered to be a housing start. If there is a lot of multi-family construction happening, then housing starts can become elevated and care must be taken not to read too much into the builders of single-family homes.

Multi-Family construction drove the increase

If you look closely at the numbers, it was all multi-family (5+ units) that drove the increase. Multi-fam starts were 309,000 in March and increased to 392,000 in April. Single-family starts actually fell from 650,000 in March to 619,000 in April.

Starts increased the most in the South, with starts increasing from 505,000 to 560,000.  These are seasonally adjusted numbers, so the fact that it is warmer in the South doesn’t affect the numbers. The Northeast actually fell from 104,000 to 98,000. The West was flat, while the Midwest increased modestly.

Right now, there is a boom for rental properties as institutional investors chase the high single-digit rental yields that are available. This is making life more difficult for young adults, who find themselves most vulnerable in the job market and are competing with the likes of Blackrock (BLK) and Blackstone (BX) for starter homes. That said, the number of single family starts was more or less in line with December and January numbers.

While 1 million starts sounds like a lot, relative to historical numbers it is quite low. From 1959 to 2002, housing starts averaged about 1.5 million units a year. In fact, housing starts typically bottomed at a million units during recessions. The fact that we are just cracking the 1 million mark shows just  how deep this housing recession was.

Implications for the homebuilders:

Today’s report had a negligible impact on the performance of the Homebuilder ETF (XHB) which was up modestly with the market. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that multi-family drove the increase and not single-family homes. Homebuilders compete with rentals for new household formation, and as the supply of rental properties increases, rents should fall relative to house prices. This will negatively affect new home pricing at the margin. Homebuilders like Lennar (LEN), KB Homes (KBH), Toll Brothers (TOL), and NVR will feel the impact of an increasing supply of rental properties. Offsetting this effect will be the current low inventory level.

Right now, the difference between renting and buying is about the widest it has ever been. When one considers the difference between median house prices and median rents, purchasing is cheaper. Rock-bottom interest rates and low prices for starter homes are making homeownership very affordable. As the job market improves for younger adults, those that are currently renting will contemplate homeownership. The Obama Administration has been pushing banks to lend more and to use FHA loans for first-time home buyers. FHA loans require only 3.5% down, so they are perfect for the first time homebuyer. This move from renting to purchasing will help homebuilders longer-term.