New housing construction picked up in February after a January dip, a sign of the resilience of the housing market due to strong economic conditions.
Housing starts jumped 5.2 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted rate of 1.2 million, a five-month high. Economists attribute this increase to pent-up demand and a lack of supply in some markets. Pent-up demand resulted from some buyers putting off new home purchases until economic conditions improved.
“People are starting to move out of their parents’ basements and spare bedrooms,” said Brad Hunter, chief economist at Metrostudy. “The younger generation are buying existing homes but ultimately this pushes more new home production.”
A strong jobs report for February reporting 4.9 percent unemployment and 242,000 new jobs bodes well for the housing sector. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve’s decision last week not to raise interest rates is encouraging news for homebuyers. Hunter said he expects the uptick in housing construction to continue throughout 2016, and he estimates a year-on-year increase of 11 percent for housing starts.
With the exception of the northeast, all regions experienced growth in new home constructions, with the west experiencing the biggest increase at 26 percent. Housing starts jumped 20 percent in the Midwest and seven percent, in the South while the Northeast experienced a 51 percent drop in new housing construction.
While building permits fell 3 percent, it is too early to tell whether this represents a trend and we can expect housing constructions to experience a steady rise throughout the year.
“They are a very volatile number and we have to look at the medium-term trend that is still flat up,” said Harm Barnholz, chief U.S. economist at UniCredit Bank.
Growth in single-family homes fueled housing starts in all regions, making up 70 percent of new constructions. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index reported that builder confidence in the single-family home market held steady in March, due to healthy economic conditions.
“Solid job growth, low mortgage rates and improving mortgage availability will help keep the housing market on a gradual upward trajectory in the coming months,” wrote National Association of Home Builders Chief Economist David Crowe.
Keeping with strong builder confidence, construction industry employment continues to grow across the U.S., with construction employment increasing in 243 out of 358 metro areas between January 2015 and January 2016 according to analysis released earlier this week by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Other factors accounted for regional variations in starts numbers. In the northeast, a colder than average February accounted for the steep drop in new constructions. A lack of inventory in the west fueled the sharp increase in new home constructions, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.
Some areas dependent on the oil and gas industry experienced a drop in demand, notably Texas. While Houston led the country for housing starts last year, Flair Homes, a Houston-based custom builder, experienced a sharp decline in demand for homes valued above $500,000 over the last three months.
“Most of the customers for total custom homes are people in the higher executive branch of any industry, and especially in Texas this is oil and gas related,” said Himanshu Amin, vice president of finance at Flair Homes. “Right now, everybody is in a total holdback because nobody knows where the industry is going over the next nine months or so.”
Growth continues in some specialty home construction sectors, particularly in Colorado, where some jurisdictions have imposed strict environmental compliance rules for new home constructions. For example, in Boulder County, any new home over 5,000 square feet constructed after January 2016 must produce as much energy as it consumes.
Some local home construction companies that focus on green construction have benefited from this trend. Boulder-based Cottonwood Custom Home Builders focuses on custom-built environmentally sustainable homes. Cottonwood president Jeff Hindman said his company has experienced an uptick in demand for green homes over the past few years.
“There’s a strong green ethic in Colorado,” said Hindman. “We’re back to where we were before the recession.”