Single-Family Housing Starts Fell In January, Despite What The Headlines May Have Told You

Housing starts September 2008 - August 2010Annualized Single-Family Housing Starts dropped 1 percent in January to 413,000 units nationwide, it’s lowest reading almost 2 years.

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

Now, if you had only seen the Housing Starts story in the headlines today, you wouldn’t have known that single-family starts fell at all. It’s because of how the story is being reported.

Most commonly, newspaper headlines are reading something similar to “Housing Starts Jump 14.6%” with the lead paragraph making mention that “housing starts are at their highest levels in 4 years”.

It’s a true statement, but it’s misleading, too.

This is because, despite the Census Bureau reporting Housing Starts by property type — single-family, multi-family, and apartments — the media often lumps them into a single data set.

It’s a categorization that helps investors in homebuilder stocks, but it does little for everyday home buyers. The huge majority of buyers aren’t buying multi-units or whole apartment buildings — they’re buying 1-unit homes.

Here’s how January’s Housing Starts broke down by type:

  • Single-Family Homes : Down 4,000 units, or -1%
  • 2-4 Unit Homes : Negligible change
  • Apartment Buildings : Up 46,000 units, or +80%

Clearly, the surge in Housing Starts can be attributed to the rapid rise in the 5-unit-or-more sector. Single-Family Starts were weak, by comparison.

Even with all of this noted, however, we can’t even be certain that the January Housing Starts data is accurate anyway. A footnote in the government’s report shows that, although single-family starts are said to have decreased 1 percent, the data’s margin of error is ±8.6%.

This means that the true Single-Family Housing Starts reading may be anywhere from -9.6% to +7.6%. The data is throw-away. Housing Starts may have actually increased in January, but we won’t know until revisions are offered later this year.

Home Builders Report Higher Sales Levels In January

NAHB HMI Index 2000-2011

Homebuilder confidence in the market for newly-built, single family homes appears stable as the spring buying season gets underway.

The confidence reading is recorded and reported monthly by the National Association of Homebuilders. For the 4th straight month, the group’s Housing Market Index reads 16.

As a market indicator, Housing Market Index has been tracked for more than twenty years and reports on a 1-100 scale. A value of 50 or better indicates “favorable conditions” for home builders.

HMI hasn’t read higher than 50 since April 2006.

Broken down, the Housing Market Index is actually a weighted composite of 3 separate surveys measuring current single-family sales; projected single-family sales; and foot traffic of prospective buyers.

February’s surveys showed slight improvement as compared to January, overall.

  • Single-Family Sales : 17 (+2 from from January)
  • Projected Single-Family Sales : 25 (+1 from January)
  • Buyer Foot Traffic : 12 (unchanged from January)

It’s notable that the current sales levels were higher in February, and that projected sales levels for the next 6 months are higher, too.

For home buyers , this month’s Housing Market Index reading may foreshadow tougher negotiations in the months ahead with builders. The likelihood of getting discounts and free upgrades may be diminished as builders see their respective sales levels grow, and as the economy expands.

Coupled with rising mortgage rates, home buyer purchasing power may never be as high as it is today. 

Therefore, if your plans call for buying a newly-built home this year, think about moving up your time frame. Builder confidence appears to have bottomed. As it rises, so should home prices.