Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that new-home sales climbed 18% in August to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 504,00. At this rate, the WSJ reports, it would take 4.8 months to deplete the supply of new homes. But whether this rosy outcome will come in the next 4.8 months is unclear.
The WSJ report came out just after the Commerce Department released its monthly figures on Wednesday, which were much higher than expected. (Just before the census figure came out, Market Watch reported: "New home sales in August are expected to show a modest improvement to a 426,000 run rate, from 412,000 in July.") The August surge marked the biggest one-month jump since 1992 and the highest level of sales since May 2008 (just at the beginning of the recession before the complete crash in September 2008). However, the outcome for the year overall is much more modest. Brad Hunter, chief economist at home-building research firm Metrostudy, sees this year’s home-construction starts amounting to a 2% gain from last year. (See "Not So August: Builders, Economists Still See Mediocre New-Home Sales in 2014," WSJ, 9/24/14).
But national statistics don't quite tell the whole story. The housing market is a local one, and everything depends on where you actually build. If you're in one of the top 15 markets reported in Builder magazine, the demand for new homes is hardly your biggest concern right now.
New-home sales represent a small slice of the housing market—roughly 10% of home sales. The overall housing recovery looks quite different. The National Association of Realtors reported sales of previously owned homes—about 90% of the market—slipped in August, ending four months of gains.
Figures suggest the housing hole is still quite deep. Backed by real-estate data, Peter Drier opined in the New York Times in May: The total value of America’s owner-occupied housing remains $3.2 trillion below 2006 levels. According to Zillow, a real estate database, 9.8 million households still owe more on their mortgages than the market value of their homes. That’s one-fifth of all mortgaged homes. "
The reasons for the slow recovery are complex, but one key factor reported in recent real-estate news in the Washington Post is the stark absence of young, first-time home buyers. “The main culprit," Rick Sharga, executive vice president of Auction.com is reported saying, "is that the age cohort of first-time buyers, who are normally 25 to 35, was hit the hardest by the recession. Unemployment is still high among that age group and the jobs they do have are often at low wages or are even part-time.” The unemployment rate for this age group stands at 9%, The Washington Post reports, while the national average unemployment rate is currently 6.1%. For those younger prospective buyers who are employed, a combination of low-wage jobs and massive student-loan debt is making it difficult to save for a down payment.