In this Wednesday, April 24, 2013, photo, workers are seen at the construction of a new apartment housing complex in Trenton, N.J.

A Chilly Start to 2014 for Housing

Winter has not been kind to the housing industry, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

In this Wednesday, April 24, 2013, photo, workers are seen at the construction of a new apartment housing complex in Trenton, N.J.

While the weather impact is clear, other factors will cause home construction to experience stops and starts along the post-recession growth path.

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2013 was a good year for home builders. While production remains below normal levels, as determined by population growth and the need to replace older housing, last year’s gains in home construction generated real economic benefits.

Multifamily building led the way, growing 25 percent over 2012 levels and reaching a total of 309,000 units. Single-family has lagged but increased 16 percent in 2013. Total starts reached a level of 931,000 housing units last year, an increase of 19 percent.

The expansion of building has been an engine of job creation. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the residential construction sector added 121,000 jobs during 2013 and almost 250,000 over the last two and half years.

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With a significant amount of pent-up rental and owner-occupied housing demand, 2014 is poised to build on these economic gains. However, monthly housing data for the start of the year have been disappointing.

The February National Association of Home Builders / Wells Fargo Housing Market Index, or HMI – a measure of single-family builder market confidence – experienced its largest monthly drop in index history, falling 10 points to a level of 46. Any number above 50 indicates that more builders view market conditions as good rather than poor. Prior to the February report, the HMI had been above 50 for eight straight months.

The January Census Bureau report on housing construction reflected this drop in market confidence, as single family starts declined 16 percent from the December 2013 pace. January was the second straight monthly decline for total and single-family starts.

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So is it time to call a trend and question the prospects for housing growth in 2014? No.

First, it is important to note that much of the January decline in housing construction was weather related. For example, single-family starts in the Midwest, which has experienced an unusually cold winter, declined a dramatic 60 percent from December to January. For the Midwest, the January 2014 single-family starts pace was 50 percent lower than the January 2013 rate.

While the weather impact is clear in the data, there are other factors at work that will cause the monthly data to experience stops and starts along the post-recession growth path to a normal housing construction market.

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Home builders have reported difficulty in filling available jobs with workers with the right skills. To see this for the construction sector overall, government job data indicate the number of unfilled construction sector positions rose from 95,000 in December of 2012 to 143,000 at the end of 2013. The residential building sector is also experiencing higher building material prices and a shortage of developed lots in some regions. These supply-side bottlenecks will partially hold back the uptick in construction as pent-up housing demand is unlocked.

As the chart above indicates, there is considerable room for single-family housing to grow. Housing’s current contribution to GDP is 15.3 percent (residential fixed investment and housing services), while in more normal economic times this share is 17 percent to 18 percent. And given population growth and other demand factors, most housing economists expect 2014 to be the first year after the Great Recession for total housing starts to exceed 1 million units.

This optimism about the medium-term was certainly reflected at the 2014 International Builders’ Show, the sector’s annual trade event showcasing all elements of the residential construction industry. The show, which co-located with the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show to create Design and Construction Week, had 75,000 people in attendance and the mood was upbeat about the coming year.

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In my conversations with builders, multifamily property owners, remodelers, and other real estate professionals, there was a positive feeling about the growth prospects for housing – once the winter passes. Top issues for the coming year include green building and energy efficiency, remodeling and building for aging-in-place, training the next generation of trades workers, and the future of first-time homebuyers.