From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

So, folks, where are we going to live?

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Much has been said recently about housing starts being back up to where they were before the recession.  If this is the case, then why does Seattle, for example, have a 0.9 month supply of homes for sale?  As usual, the details are much more complicated than the headlines.

Prior to the “meltdown” (let’s say, 2004 – 2007), housing starts in the U.S. averaged about 1.865 million units per year.  Now, few analysts disagree that this was too many, but figuring out the right number is harder than one might think.  In 2008, the number dipped down to about 905,000, and hit a low of 583,000 in 2009.  Since then, the annual starts have trended up.  However, in 2016, we still were only at 1.207 million.  Of that, only 751,000 were single family units, compared to an average of 1.4 million single family homes per year in the 2004-2007 period.  Hence, nationally, we’re building about half as many homes as we were 10 years ago.

From 2004-2007, we started 7.462 million dwelling units in America, but in the past four years we’ve only started a total of about 4.432 million (all varieties).  That’s a shrinkage of about 3 million new homes, and most of that shrinkage is in the single family category.

One might posit that the decline in home ownership rates should have freed up some demand, and some of that’s true.  The home ownership rate in America peaked at 69% during the run-up to the recession, and dropped steadily after the melt-down, to a low of 62.9% in the 2nd quarter 2016.  As of the end of the 3rd quarter this year, it sits at 63.9%, or about 5 points below the peak of a decade ago.

There are about 76.146 million owner-occupied housing units in the U.S. today.  A five-percent swing in this number is a little over 3.5 million houses.  In short, we’ve now “absorbed” the decline in starts, and structurally we’re more-or-less “over” the recession, and we’re simply not building enough new homes to meet the demand.

Several consequences came out of the melt-down.  First, developing land takes quite a few years — five or more in the “hot” areas like Seattle, where land has to go thru a permitting and entitlement phase long before a house can be built.  All of this requires land planners, both in the private sector and downtown at the county or city hall. Many of these folks lost their jobs during the 2008-09 period, and indeed some county and city planning offices were eviscerated.  New home development frequently requires a significant outlay in public infrastructure, including schools, roads, and utilities.  Worse than that, many construction trades were gutted, with no replacements available.   Financing for acquisition, development, and construction is now problematic (although, arguably, it was too liberal pre-recession).

As such, it’s a sellers market for homes, and in hot markets, buyers compete by bidding up prices beyond reasonable levels.  Some pundits are nervous, and with good reason.

(Thanks to the U.S. Census Bureau for the October 31 data.)

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 11, 2017 at 11:29 am

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