Here’s a measure of the weirdness of the American housing market circa early 2015: Today the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that sales of new homes in January were pretty much the same as in December, down by just 0.2%—and that’s considered good news. Analysts had expected sales to dip by a full 2%, but the rate remained essentially unchanged, with 481,000 new single-family homes going into contract, up 5.3% from a year ago. Hooray!
Hooray! This doesn’t change the overall portrait of the market much. Prices are way up—the median price is now $294,300, according to the report, up from $218,000 last January—and there’s only a 5.4-month supply of new homes to feed buyer demand at the current sales rate. In a normal market, there would be six months of inventory available.
“New-home sales started 2015 not losing ground to gains at end of 2014, but at this level they are still about 40% off what would be a normal volume,” said Jonathan Smoke, our chief economist here at realtor.com®. “The issue is affordability. Builders have traded higher prices and margins and steady demand for opportunity of higher volumes. Supply isn’t growing, and it isn’t helping the lack of supply on existing-home side, so we will continue to see home shoppers report that they can’t find homes to fit their needs and/or budget.”
Limited access to credit for smaller builders, rising construction costs, labor shortages, and fear that the entry-level buyer is too debt-ridden to return to the market have driven most builders to go after the luxury market or the move-up buyer. This has left the housing market with a distinct lack of available, affordable homes for first-time buyers. (The millions of you who read realtor.com obsessively will recall we’ve said similar things quite often in recent days.)
“A persistent lag in new home construction will lead to faster home price growth, which will negatively impact housing affordability,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors®.
According to the NAR, there is a new-construction housing shortage in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
NAR analyzed jobs created in every state and the District of Columbia for three years. It found that Florida, Utah, California, Montana, and Indiana, where job creation has been particularly strong, had the greatest disparity in new-home construction levels. Yun cautioned that these states could face persistent housing shortages and affordability issues unless housing starts increase to match local job gains.
Builders, however, say the market is affordable. According to the latest National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index, nearly 63% of new and existing homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2014 were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $63,900.
“Affordable home prices, historically low mortgage rates, and an improving job market will release pent-up demand and help keep the housing market moving forward in the year ahead,” said David Crowe, chief economist at the NAHB.