The Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that housing starts returned to Earth in August after a strong gain in July. Housing starts soared to a revised 1,117,000 units at the annual rate in July, their second-highest pace since November 2007. This figure fell to an annualized 956,000 in August, or a decline of 14.4 percent. Still, it represented an increase from June’s 909,000 figure, and over the past 12 months, housing starts have risen 8.0 percent. As such, despite the decrease in August, residential construction activity remains on an upward trajectory, albeit one that only gradually has moved higher with a lot of volatility from month to month.
The bulk of the decline in August stemmed from a falloff in multi-family housing starts, down from 458,000 to 313,000. Multi-family starts have averaged 352,375 per month year-to-date, with the August reading being the low-point so far this year. Yet, multi-family starts have risen 16.8 percent over the past 12 months. Even with such unpredictability from month to month, multi-family unit activity has trended higher.
At the same time, single-family starts were down from 659,000 in July to 643,000 in August. This figure has also increased over a longer time horizon, up from 583,000 in January and 617,000 in August 2013. As such, single-family housing starts have increased 4.2 percent year-over-year.
Meanwhile, housing permits mirrored many of these same developments, with permitting down from 1,057,000 in July to 998,000 in August. On a year-over-year basis, housing permits grew 5.3 percent since August 2013. Single-family (down from 631,000 to 626,000) and multi-family (down from 426,000 to 372,000) were both lower for the month, with the latter off more significantly.
Overall, the slowdown in new residential activity in August was disappointing, particularly given the strength seen in July. Moreover, it follows encouraging news on home builder sentiment, which improved to its highest level in nearly 9 years. Nonetheless, the July data were perhaps a bit too strong, and we should have expected the pendulum to swing back somewhat. Despite the decline in both starts and permits in August, the longer-term trend for housing remains positive, especially for single-family construction.
Moving forward, we would expect August’s housing data to remain above the one-million mark, with starts solidly at 1.1 million by year’s end, representing slow-but-steady progress in the residential market.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.