Housing Inventory Ends Year Down 22%

There were fewer homes listed for sale at the end of 2011 than in any of the previous four years, a positive sign for the housing sector.

But appearances can be deceiving, and it remains to be seen whether the drop is the beginning of a real recovery or if inventory is being held down by sellers waiting for prices to pick up and banks moving slowly on foreclosures.

The 1.89 million homes on the market at the end of December represented a 6% decline from November and a 22.3% decline from one year ago, according to data compiled by Realtor.com.

Low inventories are an important ingredient for any housing recovery because prices could firm up in markets that have worked through their inventory.

Still, some real-estate agents aren’t celebrating because there’s a large backlog of potential foreclosures that haven’t yet been taken back and listed by banks. The inventory declines are particularly pronounced in certain states where banks have sharply slowed down foreclosures to correct document-handling abuses.

Moreover, some sellers have pulled their homes off the market to wait for a turn in prices, and that “pent up” demand from sellers could keep inventories higher once prices do rise.

Inventories were down for the year in all but one of the 145 markets tracked by Realtor.com, with Springfield, Ill., posting the only year-over-year inventory gain. The largest declines were recorded in Miami (-49.7%), Phoenix (-49.1%), and Bakersfield, Calif. (-46.6%).

The Realtor.com figures include sale listings from more than 900 multiple-listing services across the country. They don’t cover all homes for sale, including those that are “for sale by owner” and newly constructed homes that aren’t always listed by the services.

Nationally, median prices were down by 1% from November but up 5% from one year ago. Asking prices rose by 32.5% in Miami last year, with big increases in other Florida markets that include Naples (21.7%), Fort Myers-Cape Coral (21.5%), and Punta Gorda (19.4%).

Median asking prices fell from year-earlier levels in Detroit (-11%), Chicago (-10%), Las Vegas (-7.6%) and Sacramento, Calif. (-7%).

Inventories traditionally decline in December as sales slow during the holiday season. Listings have declined by 11% in December over the past 29 years, according to research firm Zelman & Associates.

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Behind the Numbers: Housing Starts Fall

Associated Press
Builders started construction on fewer U.S. homes in December.

It wasn’t exactly a banner December for the home-building industry.

The nation’s builders started construction on 4.1% fewer homes compared with a month earlier. Construction decreased to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000 in December, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

But the news wasn’t all gloomy. The main reason for the monthly decline was a more than 20% drop in construction of multifamily homes with at least two units, a part of the market that tends to swing around a lot.

Other data were more positive. Analysts often pay more attention to the single-family sector, which made up more than 70% of housing starts in December. Single-family construction was actually up 4.4% from a month earlier and reached the highest level since April 2010 – a time when builders were ramping up construction in response to a government tax credit for first-time home buyers.

The housing sector is gradually, tentatively, slowly healing after a collapse in prices that started 5 1/2 years ago. There have been some encouraging signs of late, and builders have been growing more optimistic.

But it’s clear that there’s a long way to go. Since 1959, there have been about 1.5 million new homes started per year, on average. Last year, construction was started on only 607,000 homes – the best year since 2008, but still the third-worst year since the government began keeping records.

Here’s what some industry watchers had to say:

Paul Diggle, economist, Capital Economics: “With demand set to improve this year, we think that homebuilding is past the low-water mark and will rise modestly in 2012. We expect housing starts to rise to about 750,000 this year in response to stronger demand, which will be supported by an extremely favorable valuation and affordability environment and a slight loosening in credit conditions. That said, with household formation still low and new builds competing with a steady influx of foreclosed properties, it may not be until 2015 at the earliest that starts reach healthy levels of around one million a year.”

Michael Gapen, economist Barclays Capital: “We view the softness in the headline number as mainly reflecting month-to-month volatility in the multifamily starts component and see underlying trends in both single- and multi-family starts, along with building permits, as suggesting the recent modest momentum in home building remains in place. We continue to see residential investment as making a small positive contribution to (fourth-quarter economic) growth and believe housing will not pose a drag on the recovery as it has in the past. “

Michelle Meyer, economist, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch: “The drop in multifamily starts reversed the gain in November, which reflects the noisy nature of the data. In 2011, multifamily starts are up 55% while single-family are down 9%. Looking ahead to this year, we expect a similar size gain in multifamily starts this year and little change in single family starts, leaving total housing starts to average about 710,000, up from 607,000 in 2011. While this is a decent percentage gain, it is only a modest pickup in the number of homes constructed, therefore only providing a small boost to the economy.”

Kevin Logan, chief U.S. economist, HSBC: “Month-to-month changes in housing starts are erratic, not least of all because of variations in the weather across the country. Not much should be made of one month’s decline. For the year, housing starts rose 3.7% compared to 2010. Starts of multifamily residences provided all of the strength… This pattern is likely to persist in 2012, with strong gains in multifamily starts outpacing the single-family sector.”

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December Housing Starts and Permits Figures Sag

Building permits and housing starts in
December were both below levels reported in November ‘according to data
released this morning by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
and the Census Bureau.  Both statistics
were, however, well above the levels one year earlier.

Building permits for privately owned
housing units were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 679,000, 0.1 percent
below the revised November rate of 680,000. 
Permitting activity was 7.8 percent higher than in December 2010 when
the pace of permits was 630,000.  The
November figure was revised downward from the 681,000 originally reported.

Permits were issued for single-family
houses at the rate of 444,000, up 1.8 percent from the 436,000 reported in
November.  Multi-family authorizations
(permits in buildings with five or more units) were at a rate of 209,000
compared to 223,000 in November.

The report estimates that there were 611,900
housing units issued during the whole of 2011, a 1.2 percent increase over the
604,600 issued in 2010.

On a regional basis, permitting
increased month-over-month in the Midwest by 5.8 percent and was up 13.4
percent on an annual basis.  Permits in
the West were unchanged from November and down 1.2 percent year-over-year.   Permitting fell 6.5 percent in the Northeast
and was 36.8 percent below that of one year ago while the South had a
fractional -0.6 percent change since November but permitting was still up 31.1
percent for the year.

Building Permits

Click Here to View the Housing Permits Chart

Privately-owned housing starts in
December were at a seasonally adjusted rate of 657,000, 4.1 percent below the
revised November estimate of 685,000 but a 24.9 percent increase from the
December 2010 rate of 526,000.  
Single-family starts were at a rate of 470,000, up 4.4 percent from the
previous month’s pace of 450,000 and 11.6 percent higher than in December 2010. 

There were an estimated 606,900 housing
units for which construction was started in 2011 compared to 586,900 in
2010.  This is an increase of 3.4
percent.

There were strong regional differences
in housing starts.  The Midwest saw a
jump of 54.8 percent in housing starts since November and a year-over-year
increase of 121.5 percent.  The other
regions did not fare nearly as well.  The
Northeast was down 41.2 percent for the month and 1.7 percent since December
2010.  The change in the South was -3.0
percent for the month and 19.0 percent for the year, and the West was down
-17.6 percent since November but up 1.5 percent annually.

Housing Starts

Click Here to View the Housing Starts Chart

Housing completions in December were at
a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 605,000, up 9.2 percent from the upwardly revised
(from 542,000) November figure of 554,000. 
Single family completions were at a rate of 448,000, a -0.9 percent monthly
change.

An estimated 583,900 housing units were
completed during 2011, 10.4 percent below the 2010 figure of 651,700.  At year’s end there were an estimated 78,800
permits that had been issued but for which work had not yet been started.  More than half of these permits (43,100) were
in the South.

…(read more)

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HUD Provides $79 Million to Help North Dakota Recover From Last Year’s Devastating Floods

WASHINGTON – U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan today allocated $79.3 million in emergency aid to help North Dakota communities recover from last year’s devastating flooding.

Calpers Downsizes Housing Portfolio

Calpers, the giant California pension fund, is dumping one of its last major housing investments at a big loss.