New home sales for February were stronger than expected, at an annualized pace of 539,000 units vs. 465,000 expected. This is good news because it is the highest number since early 2008. However, the chart below shows that we are still dealing with a depressed single-family housing market.
First, it is clear that we are very far below the peak recorded near 1.4 million in the mid-2000s. Second, if we dismiss that period as an irrational bubble, it is still a fact that a 539,000 reading is in the bottom half of the historic range of 400K-800K. In fact, if we ignore recessionary periods (shaded areas), new home construction has not been this low since the 1960s when the US population totaled under 200 million vs. about 320 million now and when household size was larger than it is today.
It is true that multi-family construction is now more prominent than in the past and that it mitigates the sluggishness in single-family construction. As seen below, multi-family housing volumes now exceed the high preceding the 2008 crisis.
But if we use a back of the envelope approach and use a figure in the low 300,000 multi-family annual units as an historic average, we could say that the last multi-family reading is about 150,000 units above average. We could then argue that these 150,000 were ‘shifted’ from single-family homes. (That may be a generous assumption, considering that a large share of these multi-family buildings are destined to be rentals. Nonetheless the higher demand for rentals can also be considered a secular ‘shift’ that should be counted.)
Without this shift in living preferences, we could then argue that single-family sales would have been about 150,000 higher and closer to a 700,000 annual pace. That is a much better figure than 539,000 but still not very robust compared to the past, given low interest rates, the growth in population and the decrease in household size. In my view, keeping these factors in mind, an adjusted figure north of 800,000 single-family units would be closer to the historic norm. We should therefore be looking for a monthly report of at least 650,000 single family homes before we can talk about a return to normal.
In US Housing and Demographics, I made an argument three years ago that the housing market would be weak until at least 2020 because of adverse demographics. So far, it looks like the recent data supports my thesis. Homebuilder stocks have risen since then. This is based in part on optimistic anticipation of greater home sales, and in part on the fact that homebuilders have been quite adept at identifying and directing their efforts at higher growth areas of the country.