This video is the latest in our Monday with Matthew series with Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner. Each month, he analyzes the most up-to-date U.S. housing data to keep you well-informed about what’s going on in the real estate market.
"Hello there, I’m Windermere’s Chief Economist Matthew Gardner and welcome to this month’s episode of Monday with Matthew. Today we are going to take a look at the new home market where headwinds are certainly growing. And the reason this particular subject piqued my interest was that the National Association of Home Builders just released their Housing Market Index for August, and the numbers were certainly eye-opening.
Now, for those of you who may not be particularly familiar with this index, it is based on a survey of home builders which asks them to give their opinions on the single-family home market and asks them to rate current market conditions for the sale of homes today as well as in six months’ time. It also asks their opinion regarding foot traffic of prospective buyers to their new home communities.
And as you can see, the headline index level fell six points to 49. The drop in August marked the eighth consecutive monthly decline for the Housing Market Index. It was also notable because it was the first time since May of 2020 that the index has dropped below the key 50 breakeven level. This is significant, as it tells us that today more home builders currently rate sales conditions as poor than good.
Now, while the August number was certainly lower than some economists had forecast, I was actually not too surprised as builders have been reporting a spike in cancelled contracts recently. In fact, a report I just read that was put out by John Burns Consulting suggested that the cancellations have more than doubled since April with 17.6% of buyers pulling out of their purchases in July. That compares to 8% in April and 7 ½% a year ago.
This chart shows a breakdown of three components of the Housing Market Index which are all at their lowest levels since May of 2020, which was just before housing activity rebounded following the lockdown due to COVID-19.
I find this index has a very strong correlation with new home sales, but I also use it as a pretty reliable leading indicator when it comes to single-family housing starts. I’ll get to that shortly. The survey also stated that one in five builders had reduced prices in August. That might help to explain the 10-point spread between builders’ perception of current versus future sales. But there are limits on home builders’ ability to keep cutting prices in order to support sales. This has become a significant issue because many of them are currently holding a large stock of inventory.
Here is what current inventory levels look like. Although you might think that it’s not that bad given that only 9% of available homes are finished are ready to move into, I would tell you that builders incur costs every day that a home is not sold, even if that home has yet to be built. And with inventory at a level not seen since 2008, I’m sure there are a lot of builders not sleeping too well right now.
I would add that by the time the above video is released, the July new home sales report will have been published. I can almost guarantee that the number of homes for sale will have grown further.
Higher inventory levels are due to slower sales activity, which is continuing to decline. Sales are 17% lower than a year ago. With more homes for sale and lower transactions, it would now take more than nine months to absorb all available homes using the current sales pace. I would also tell you that the last time months of supply broke above nine was all the way back in 2010.
With high supply levels and lower sales, it’s not at all surprising to see builders hitting the brakes, with new home starts falling by 10.1% between June and July of this year. Starts are down by 18 ½% from a year ago. Starts have dropped on a sequential basis for five consecutive months now, and I am afraid that they will drop further before finding a bottom.
So, what’s the bottom line here? Well, there are several issues I see, the first of which is affordability. Home prices have been spiraling upward since the start of the pandemic not only because mortgage rates dropped, but construction costs started jumping and builders had to charge more for a home.
Builders saw prices rise by almost 18% last year. This had already taken a significant toll on affordability even before the mortgage rates spike we saw earlier this year. The upshot, as I see it, is that tighter monetary policy from the Fed, in concert with construction costs that remain well above normal levels, has hit builders and hit them hard. Of course, they are doing their best to address the situation by slowing construction activity significantly, but I think that they are going to have a pretty rough time for the next several months.
Ultimately, I see little option for home builders other than lowering prices further, especially now that they are competing with rising inventories in the resale market. I also believe that there are buyers out there waiting patiently on the sidelines for prices to drop in the coming months as they know that builders at some point have to solve the current supply demand imbalance and lowering prices is the easiest way of doing this. Last month the average price drop was 5%, but this is very likely to increase as we move toward the fall.
Will builders get through the situation they find themselves in? I believe that they will. And there are some glimmers of light out there with inflation appearing to be peaking, interest rates are, if not dropping, then certainly stabilizing, and this will help.
Builders also understand that the country has a significant housing shortage. In fact, a recent report published by “Up For Growth” suggested that we have a housing shortage today of around 3.8 million homes. Although this includes rental and ownership housing, some basic math tells me that there is a need today for around 2.5 million new owner-occupied homes. So, light is definitely at the end of the tunnel, but there is a way to go before they get out of it.
And there you have it. I hope that you’ve found my thoughts on this topic of interest. As always, if you have any questions or comments about the current new home environment, please do reach out to me. In the meantime, stay safe out there and I look forward to visiting with you all again next month.