Residential Building Sector Grows but Trends Mixed in March 2013

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Residential building permits and construction completions in March 2013 continues to show the industry growth. The data, however, is mixed.

  • Our analysis paints a “less good” picture than the headline data. Our best guess is there are seasonal distortions in the headline data caused by the new normal.
  • There was a drop in apartment building permits comparing March 2012 to March 2013.
  • The rate of annual growth in the last 12 months for this sector has been in a channel between 25% and 40%. Last  month the year-over-year growth is near the lower end of this channel, and this month permit growth was significantly lower than the bottom of the channel.
  • Please note that the media concentrates on housing starts as a single metric for this data series – while Econintersect focuses on the general growth trends of the sector (permits versus completions) which are the best indicator of trends which show the health of this sector. Housing starts would give an indication of construction contribution to GDP.

  • Building permits have grown year-over-year for the last 23 months;
  • Construction completions have grown year-over-year for 17 of the last 18 months;
  • Building permits outpaced completions for the last 16 months.

Econintersect Analysis:

  • Building permits are down 15.7% month-over-month, up 11.4% year-over-year.
  • Single family building permits rose 20.3% year-over-year.
  • construction completions are up 13.7% month-over-month, up 38.3% year-over-year.

US Census Headlines:

  • building permits up 3.9% month-over-month, up 17.3% year-over-year
  • construction completions up 11.0% month-over-month, up 36.3% year-over-year
  • the market expected 945K to 955K annualized seasonally adjusted housing permits versus the 902K reported

Note that Econintersect analysis herein is based on UNADJUSTED data – not the headline seasonally adjusted data.

When more building permits are issued than residences completed – the industry is expanding – and this expansion has been underway for over a year. The “less bad” / “more good” growth trend line has been positive since 2009. In the graph below, any value above zero shows more permits are being issued than completions.

Difference Between New Home Building Permits and Construction Completions (unadjusted)

Construction completions which had not been growing year-over-year since mid-2011, experienced a growth spasm in the April data, but has since settle back to the middle of its growth channel. However, clearly permits have been trending up since the beginning of 2011. The permits data remains in uptrend improvement channel – however this month’s data may be suggesting the rate of growth is moderating to flat.

Unadjusted Year-over-Year Change New Homes -Permits (blue line) and Construction Completions (red line)

Other points to take away from the data:

  • Before we start thinking all is well, the residential home industry has shrunk by two-thirds since the home bubble was peaking in 2005.

Seasonally Adjusted Residential Building Permits

  • Apartment permits (structures with 5 or more units) fell 3.9% year-over-year (from +46.7% last month). Apartments accounted for 29.7% of all building permits, and 17.7% of construction completions.

Unadjusted Ratio Apartment Permits (structures with 5 or more units) to Total Permits – higher number means more Apartments

Caveats on the use of Building Permits Data

This is a non-monetary index. Recently, the data has had moderate downward revisions one month after initial release. Therefore, the release data this month should not be taken too seriously until next month.

This sector expands when more housing permits are issued than houses completed. The data is not necessarily accurate in real time, however. For 2011, there were more building permits than construction completions (total over a complete year) for the first year since 2005.

  • 2005 = 225K more permits than construction completions
  • 2006 = 140K more construction completions than permits
  • 2007 = 104K more construction completions than permits
  • 2008 = 214K more construction completions than permits
  • 2009 = 211K more construction completions than permits
  • 2010 = 59K more construction completions than permits
  • 2011 = 25K more permits than construction completions

This data in this series is created by survey – not by hard data:

  • Permits – A monthly survey of 9,000 selected permit-issuing places; and an annual census of an additional 11,000 permit places that are not in the monthly sample. The monthly sample of permit-issuing places was selected using a stratified systematic procedure. All permit places located in selected large metropolitan areas were selected with certainty. The remaining places were stratified by state. Places that exceed a cutoff value, which varies by state, were selected with certainty. Remaining places were sampled at a rate of 1 in 10.
  • Construction Completions – To provide nationwide coverage of building activity, a multi-stage stratified random sample procedure was used to select approximately 900 building permit-issuing offices, and a sample of more than 70 land areas not covered by building permits. Each month, for permit-issuing places, a sample of residential building permits is selected from each of the sampled permit offices. The probability of selecting a permit is proportional to the number of units authorized by the permit. Permits for one-to-four-unit buildings are sampled at an overall rate of 1 in 50. All permits authorizing buildings with 5 or more housing units in the sampled permit offices are selected. Each month, for areas that do not require building permits, field representatives conduct a road canvass in each of the sampled non-permit land areas to identify the start of new buildings. All new residential buildings found are selected for the survey. Once a permit or building is selected, a field representative contacts the owner or builder, by telephone or in person, to conduct the interview each month as necessary. Contact continues until the project is either completed or abandoned. If a single-family home is not sold by the time of completion, the project will continue to be followed until the sale occurs. Each month, interviews are required for about half of the buildings currently being followed up. Each month, housing starts, completions, and sales estimates derived from this survey are adjusted by the total numbers of authorized housing units (obtained from the Building Permits Survey) to develop national and regional estimates. Estimates are adjusted to reflect variations by region and type of construction, and to account for late reports and houses started or sold before a permit has been issued. Reported data are seasonally adjusted. Monthly estimates are made for all permit-issuing places nationwide. If a survey report is not received, missing data on permits for new construction are imputed except for places that are also selected for the Survey of Construction (SOC). For these places, SOC permit data are used. We request assistance from State Data Centers to encourage jurisdictions to respond.

The US Census uses a multi-year methodology to seasonally adjust their data. Econintersect uses a simpler year-over-year analysis to seasonally adjust the data – the fear being that a major depression, government interference (incentives) in the housing markets, and other new normal effects are distorting the historical multi-year reference data.

Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month’s year-over-year change from the previous month’s year-over-year change. This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends – as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).

To say this sector is in a depression is an understatement. Please refer to the PERMIT FRED graph above.

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