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A focus on energy efficiency is the most important development and design strategy that is making new housing greener according to a recent industry survey.
McGraw Hill Construction’s (MHC) data and analytics team surveyed a set of NAHB single-family and multifamily members in 2013. The survey found that 62% of single-family builders and 54% of multifamily developers are doing more than 15% of their projects as green. For single-family, 19% of builders are doing more than 90% projects as green. The survey indicates that increasing consumer interest is a reason for growth in this area. MHC defines a green homes as “one that is either built to a recognized green building standard or an energy- and water-efficient home that also addresses indoor air quality and/or resource efficiency.”
According to the report, 75% of single-family and 84% of multifamily builders indicated that improved energy efficiency was a factor making their projects more green than two years ago.
The second leading factor was improved indoor environmental quality. 58% of single-family builders and 55% of multifamily developers cited this as a reason why their current projects are more green.
Other leading factors include more water conserving products/practices and material conservation and recycling.
However, the data from the survey also show that only 11% single-family builders and remodelers are constructing homes that are greener in 2013 than in 2011. This result makes sense given the start and stop nature of the housing recovery and tight credit conditions of recent years.
Housing news turned positive this week as spring gave way to summer. Future data will confirm whether the recent turn in momentum reflects a return to the improving trend that was in place before the end of 2013, but early signs are encouraging.
New single-family home sales reached their highest pace in six years in May. According to estimates from the Census Bureau and HUD, new home sales were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 504,000 in May, a gain of 18.6% over a slightly downwardly revised April (425,000). The May 2014 rate of sales is the highest since May 2008 and is a significant increase from the winter low point for sales in March (410,000).
The May pace of sales was certainly an improvement over the soft patch experienced from February through April. The most recent gains are likely due to a payback for weather-related declines during the winter, so future months will indicate whether a better trend has taken hold. But encouraging signs like better jobs numbers are consistent with this outcome.
Another improved indicator is the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), which rose four points in June to 49. This is just shy of the 50 mark, indicating at least as much optimism as pessimism among single-family home builders. The index dipped 10 points to 46 in February from a sustained above-50 mark for eight months and remained near there for four months. The June gains were experienced in all the components of the HMI: current sales, expected sales and traffic.
Alongside the positive new home sales report was the May existing home sales measure. The National Association of Realtors reported that existing home sales were up 4.9% from April to May. While still 5% lower year over year, the 4.89 million seasonally adjusted annual rate confirmed a turn in the decline that had been in place since the middle of 2013. Year-over-year declines in existing home sales, which distinguish this market from the growing new home market, are likely due to recent drops in distressed and investor purchases, as well as the 2014 expiration of a tax rule connected to short sales.
The one negative housing report in recent weeks was construction starts. The Census Bureau and HUD estimated that total housing starts declined 6.5% in May. Single-family starts were down 5.9%, while multifamily construction in properties with five or more units was down a larger 8.3%. The declines were a result, in part, to April’s numbers, where were among the highest since the end of the recession. On a year-over-year basis, the May pace of single-family construction was 4.7% higher and 19.2% higher for five-plus multifamily building.
Home price appreciation appears to be slowing after the strong gains of the past year or two, propelled by increases in areas that experienced some of the largest price declines during the recession. House prices grew by 10.8% between April 2013 and 2014, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Home Price Index, which was less than the 12-month growth rate of 12.4% seen in March. Similarly, the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Purchase-Only Index rose 6% compared to 6.4% in March. Both indices show that annual house appreciation slowed from December to April and suggest the housing market may be returning to its long-run growth trend.
Consistent with the weak housing reports from the winter and early spring, the final estimate of first quarter GDP indicated that the economy contracted as a 2.9% rate, the worst quarter in five years. Besides disappointing investment numbers, personal consumption growth was anemic and exports displayed particular weakness. Part of the poor performance was weather related and other one-off factors. Second quarter GDP growth should reflect some payback for deferred economic activity and post a growth rate higher than 3%.
Common measures of general prices and inflation, moved in opposite directions in May. Producer prices declined 0.2%, after notable increases of 0.5% and 0.6% for March and April respectively. Among building materials, softwood lumber prices rose 1% in May from April. Prices are 28% above the average level over 2011. OSB prices have flattened out in 2014, declining 0.7% in May. Prices are 23% above the average level over 2011. Gypsum prices declined 0.7% in May, 41% above the average 2011 mark.
In contrast, consumer prices in May experienced the largest monthly increase since February 2013, rising 0.4% on a seasonally adjusted month-over-month basis and 2.1% year over year. The increase was broad, affecting many items found in the consumer basket such as energy, food and shelter. The NAHB constructed real rent index increased nominally in May. Over the past year, real rental prices rose by 1.1%.
The Federal Open Market Committee, the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee, announced this week that the pace of asset purchases (quantitative easing) will be reduced by another $10 billion to $35 billion per month. The federal funds rate will continue to remain at the current near zero level for a “considerable time” after asset purchases have concluded.
In analysis news, economists at NAHB mapped the change in county-level housing permit activity for 2013. Overall, 1,807 counties and county equivalents saw an increase in the number of single family permits issued over the prior year while 858 saw a decrease. According to data from Hanley-Wood, there was some movement among the rankings of the top ten publicly traded home builders in 2013, although D.R. Horton maintained the top spot with more than 25,000 closings.
Additionally, NAHB economists discussed land banking and new mortgage application data for new homes. Lastly, data for the first quarter of 2014 revealed that property taxes, the top revenue source for state and local government, made up 40.3% of receipts from major sources over the last four quarters – an important reminder of the role real estate plays in local economies.
New single-family home sales reached the highest pace in six years in May.
According to estimates from the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, new home sales were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 504,000 in May, a gain of 18.6% over a slightly downwardly revised April (425,000). The May 2014 rate of sales is the highest since May of 2008 and is a significant increase from the winter low point for sales in March (410,000).
The May estimates represent a return to the improving trend that has characterized the recent recovery for the single-family sector. NAHB is forecasting that single-family new home sales will total 515,000 in 2014, a nearly 20% year-over-year gain.
New home inventories were flat in May, holding at the 189,000 revised level for April. Months-supply fell to 4.5 given the increase in the sales rate. Total inventory levels have remained in the 183,000 to 190,000 range since September 2013.
Regionally, the pace of sales in the South increased by 14% for the month, while the West was up 34%. Gains in the South may reflect payback for prior weather-related declines, while gains in the West could be due to improving job market and economic trends. The Midwest was effectively unchanged (1.4% increase) from April but has now experienced two solid months after weaker sales figures during the wintry first quarter. Sales in the Northeast were up 54.5%. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the regional numbers have large confidence intervals around the estimates.
The graph above presents monthly sales totals by stage of construction. Over the last year and a half, there have been gains in sales not-started-construction and sales currently under construction. In May, there was a 50% monthly increase in sales of homes not yet begun construction, rising from 12,000 for the month to 18,000.
The number of open, unfilled construction sector jobs continued to decline as housing construction softened during the first quarter.
According to the BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), the number of open construction sector jobs declined on a seasonally adjusted basis from an upwardly revised count of 116,000 in March to 94,000 in April. This is the first month below 100,000 open positions in construction since April of 2013. Winter conditions and other factors slowed the growth of home construction in recent months, and this likely reduced the number of jobs offered by builders and remodelers.
On a three-month moving average basis, the open position rate for the construction sector fell to 1.83% for the month of April, continuing a decline begun in December. While the open rate has declined somewhat in recent months, the rate of open jobs in construction remains above any rate witnessed after the recession and prior to 2013.
Monthly gross hiring in construction increased somewhat, rising on a seasonally adjusted basis from 257,000 to 278,000 from March to April. Over the same period, the hiring rate, as measured on a 3-month moving average basis, was effectively unchanged at 4.6% for April.
Two trends in the construction sector are worth noting. First, the layoff rate for the sector (graphed above as a 12-month moving average) has continued to fall. Second, the sector hiring rate has fallen noticeably since the fall of 2013. The trend lines over the last two years – a falling hiring rate, an elevated open rate, and a declining layoff rate – are consistent with some construction firms having trouble contracting with workers for specific projects.
It is also worth noting that, on a seasonally adjusted basis, the construction sector unemployment rate stands at 8.9% for May, down from 11.2% a year ago. Construction sector unemployment peaked at 22% (seasonally adjusted basis) in February 2010.
Monthly employment data for May 2014 (the employment count data from the BLS establishment survey are published one month ahead of the JOLTS data) indicate that total employment in home building stands at 2.259 million, broken down as 656,000 builders and 1.602 million residential specialty trade contractors.
Over the last year the home building sector has added 106,000 jobs. Since the point of peak decline of home building employment, when total job losses for the industry stood at 1.466 million, 274,800 positions have been added to the residential construction sector. As of May, over the last six months the home building and remodeling industry has added on average more than 8,000 jobs per month.
For the economy as a whole, the March JOLTS data indicate that the hiring rate was constant at 3.4% of total employment. The hiring rate has been in the 3.1% to 3.4% range since January 2011. The overall job openings rate (3.1%) ticked up out of the 2.7% to 2.9% range it has been in since the start of 2013. This may represent good news for future job creation after a tough winter.
Absorption rates for new rental and for-sale multifamily homes were roughly unchanged at the start of 2014, which is consistent with ongoing strong demand for multifamily construction.
According to NAHB analysis of data from the Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development Survey of Market Absorption of Apartments (SOMA), completions of privately financed, unsubsidized, unfurnished rental apartments in buildings with five or more units were up during 2013. A total of 132,600 such apartments were completed for these four quarters, compared to 104,500 a year earlier.
Non-seasonally adjusted three-month absorption rates (units rented after construction of the property is complete) for fourth quarter completions (rented during the first quarter of 2014) were effectively unchanged at 60% compared to 58% a year earlier. Absorption rates for rental apartments rose coming out of the recession but established a more stable range since 2011.
In contrast, condo and co-op completions remain at historically low levels, with 2,100 for-sale multifamily homes completed during the fourth quarter of 2013. The 3-month absorption rate for for-sale multifamily dipped for condos completed at the end of 2013 and sold during the first quarter of 2014, falling to 71%.
The SOMA data also reveal that for properties with five or more units approximately 15,000 Low-Income Housing Tax Credit or other federally subsidized units were completed in the fourth quarter of 2013. This is up from the 8,500 such units completed a year prior. The affordable share, LIHTC and other subsidized units, of multifamily completions was 30% for fourth quarter completions.
The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on signed contracts, increased a slight 0.4% in April to 97.8 from a March level of 97.4. The PHSI monthly increase reported by the National Association of Realtors was the second since June of 2013. However, it is important to note that the April reading was down 9.2% on a year-over-year basis.
The April PHSI increased in the Northeast by 0.6% and 5% in the Midwest but fell 0.6% in the South and 2.9% in the West. Year-over-year, all of the regions remain down, ranging from decreases of 15% in the West and 12% in the Northeast to 6.9% in the Midwest and 6.4% in the South.
The 0.4% increase in pending home sales in April contrasts with the 6.4% increase in new home sales for the same month. New home sales are down 4.2% on a year-over-year basis.