The Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that housing starts exceeded one million units again in September. It was the third time this year that it had done so, or the second in three months. Housing starts increased from an annualized 957,000 units in August to 1,017,000 in September. This continues a slow-but-steady trend upward, with an average of 978,111 so far in 2014 relative to an average of 930,000 for all of 2013. Still, there was relatively weak housing activity throughout much of the second half of last year and the first half of this year, and the latest data suggest that the data have begun to stabilize somewhat.
As usual, the bulk of the monthly change stemmed from an increase in the highly volatile multi-family segment. Multi-family housing starts rose from 318,000 at the annual rate in August to 371,000 in September, and the average year-to-date has been 353,667 units. Yet, multi-family starts have ranged from 314,000 in January to 446,000 in July, with large shifts from month to month. Even with such unpredictability, multi-family unit activity has trended higher, up 32.0 percent over the past 12 months.
At the same time, single-family starts were also higher, up from 639,000 to 646,000. The average through the first nine months of 2014 is 624,444, and year-over-year growth in September was 11.0 percent. The recent peak was 652,000 in July.
Meanwhile, housing permits mirrored many of these same developments, with permitting up from 1,003,000 to 1,018,000. On a year-over-year basis, housing permits grew 2.5 percent since September 2013. The underlying data were mixed, however. Multi-family permits were up from 376,000 to 394,000; whereas, single-family permitting edged slightly lower, down from 627,000 to 624,000. Permits for single-family homes have improved after bottoming out at 593,000 in February, but the data have been in a narrow range over much of the past year, with a year-over-year decline of 0.5 percent.
Nonetheless, we still remain optimistic about residential construction activity moving forward, and I would expect continued movement in the right direction, even with some volatility. I continue to predict housing starts solidly in the 1.1 million unit range by the beginning of 2015. One thing that might help spur more activity – beyond an improving economy, of course – is lower interest rates. According to Freddie Mac, average 30-year fixed mortgage rates fell to 3.97 percent this week, their lowest level since June 2013.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.