Weather held U.S. housing starts flat in February, even as the sector showed signs it would grow in spring.
Starts dropped to a seasonally adjusted, annualized pace of 907,000 in February, a mere 0.2 percent below January’s revised estimate of 909,000, according to data released jointly on March 18 by the Census Bureau and Commerce Department.
Analysts polled by Bloomberg had predicted 910,000.
Yet harsh winter weather in the Northeast appeared to have caused the slips, with starts in the region plummeting 37.5 percent during a month of prolonged cold.
Ice and snow make it physically difficult to do the digging for foundations that defines a start.
“The slowdown that was seen in the last few months was probably weather-related,” said Ksenia Bushmeneva, an economist at TD Economics. “It’s hard to argue against that.”
Even Sun Belt-based building giant KB Homes, which reported a first-quarter profit for the first time since 2007, told investors that the winter had affected its business in Washington, D.C., Colorado and North Carolina.
Other builders outside Washington, D.C., had to forgo starts or pay more for them, said Fisher Custom Homes principal Rob Fisher.
“I’ve seen some guys forcing it at great financial expense,” said Fisher, whose company is in Vienna, Va. “Concrete got poured when it shouldn’t have.”
With unusually tough winter weather preventing starts, some economists said the report underplayed strength in the housing sector.
In the winter, seasonal adjustment factors convert usually low tallies of starts to the adjusted data of the reports. Those adjustments, though, presume an easier winter that depresses starts less and produces raw data that need smaller increases to strip out weather effects.
For the hard winter the U.S. has endured, though, some economists said the adjustment factors simply don’t inflate the numbers enough.
“If they could have adjusted appropriately, it would have looked even better,” said David W. Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Insurance.
In addition, January’s data were revised up by nearly 30,000 starts, suggesting the troubling numbers in last month’s part had been overblown. February’s data, which already beat the average for the first three quarters, could also see upward revisions, since cold weather tends to slow reporting from builders.
The report did have some anxiety-producing data.
Permits for single-family homes fell almost 2 percent. And the 28 percent rise in permits for structures with five or more units may signal that developers are betting Americans will only have enough money to rent their homes for the foreseeable future.
Structures with five or more units include condominiums, which occupants own, but in most cases residents are renting in the building.
Bushmeneva, of TD Economics, said sustained growth into 2015 would require improvements in the unemployment rate in wages.
Analysts, though, said that the 7.7 percent rise in overall permits, to 1.02 million, showed builders are planning to move quickly once the weather eases.
“We could see a real strong surge in the spring,” said Celia Chen, the housing economist at Moody’s.
Chen predicted 1.4 million starts in 2014, which would put the sector nearly on track to house a growing population and would result in significant hiring and materials purchases.
Other analysts called for starts in the 1 to 1.2 million range.