Headlines 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.