Finding Truth In September’s Housing Starts Report

Housing Starts 2009-2011Headlines in newspapers can be misleading — especially with respect to housing figures. Media coverage of the most recent Housing Starts data serves as an excellent illustration.

Wednesday, the Census Bureau released its September Housing Starts report. In it, the government said that national Housing Starts rose 15 percent in September as compared to August 2011, tallying 658,000 units on a seasonally-adjusted annualized basis.

The September reading is the highest monthly reading since April 2010, the last month of last year’s home buyer tax credit.

The sudden surge in starts is big news for a housing market that has struggled of late, and the press was eager to carry the story. Here is a sampling of some headlines:

  • U.S. Housing Starts Rise 15%, Hit 17-Month High (MarketWatch)
  • Home Building Jumps 15% in September (ABC)
  • New Construction Surges In September (LA Times)

These headlines are each accurate. However, they’re also misleading.

Yes, Housing Starts did surge in September, but if we remove the “5 or more units” grouping from the Census Bureau data — the catgory that includes apartment buildings and condominium structures — we’re left with Single-Family Housing Starts and Single-Family Housing Starts rose just 1.7 percent last month.

That’s a good number, but hardly a great one. And for home buyers and sellers nationwide, it’s the Single-Family Housing Starts that matter most. Individuals like you and I don’t buy entire apartment buildings. Most often, we buy single-family homes. Therefore, that’s the data for which we should watch.

The good news is that media tales work in both directions.

Building Permits dropped 5 percent last month when the volatile 5-unit-or-more-units category was included from the math. Isolating for single-family homes, we find that permits were unchanged.

This is good housing because 82% of homes begin construction within 60 days of permit-issuance, hinting at a steady, late-fall housing market.

Building Permits Rising Nationwide; Housing Starts To Follow

Housing Starts 2009-2011Single-Family Housing Starts fell for the second consecutive month, dropping to a seasonally-adjusted, annualized 417,000 units in August 2011.

A “Housing Start” is defined as a home on which ground has broken.

We shouldn’t put too much faith in the findings, however. Although housing starts were lower last month, as noted by the Census Bureau, the margin of error in the August Housing Starts report exceeded the actual result.

From the official report:

  • August’s Published Results : -1.4% from July 
  • August’s Margin of Error : ±10.3% from July

Therefore, August’s Housing Starts may have actually increased by up to +8.9% from July, or it may have dropped as much as -11.7%. We won’t know for sure until several months from now, after the Census Bureau has gathered more housing data.

One thing is certain, though — the long-term trend in Housing Starts is “flat”. There has been little change in new home construction since last summer.

The same can’t be said for Building Permits.

Considered a pre-cursor to Housing Starts, Single Family Building Permits climbed 2.5 percent with a minuscule Margin of Error of ±0.9 percent.

As is common in real estate, results varied by region:

  • Northeast : +3.3 percent from July
  • Midwest : +6.3 percent from July
  • South : -1.3 percent from July
  • West : +11.3 percent from July

When permits are issued, 86 percent of them begin break ground within 60 days. Therefore, expect Housing Starts and new home inventory to rebound in the months ahead.

For now, housing remains steady. And, with mortgage rates at all-time lows, homebuyer purchasing power is higher than it’s been in history. If you’re in the process of shopping for a home, talk with your lender to plan your mortgage budget.

Housing Starts Tick Lower; Building Permits Tick Higher

Housing Starts 2009-2011Single-Family Housing Starts fell to a seasonally-adjusted, annualized 425,000 units in July, according to the Census Bureau.

A “Housing Start” is defined as a home on which construction has started and ground has broken.

Furthermore, Single-Family Housing Starts were revised lower for both May and June of this year, by 6,000 units and 2,000 units, respectively.

The data may be worthless, however.

Like in most months, the government’s official report states that the Housing Starts numbers have a margin of error exceeding their actual measurement. Mathematically, this renders the data statistically irrelevant.

  • July Published Results : +4.9%
  • July Margin of Error : ±8.9%

In other words, July Housing Starts made have increased by as much as 13.8%, or they may have dropped up to 4.0%. We won’t know for certain until several months from now, when the Census Bureau gathers more data.

Regardless, the trend in Housing Starts has been flat since last summer. July’s reading is in-line with the 12-month average and, not surprisingly, New Home Sales have been mostly flat over the same time span.

Also included in the Housing Starts report is the Building Permits tally. As compared to June, permits were higher by a half-percent nationwide, with varying results by region.

  • Northeast : +2.9 percent from June
  • Midwest : +0.0 percent from June
  • South : -1.4 percent from June
  • West : +4.9 percent from June

When permits are issued, 86 percent of them start construction within 60 days. This means that new home sales and housing stock should follow the Building Permits trend, but on a 2-month delay.

Expect improvement into the fall season.