Matthew Gardner: What You Should Know About Today’s Real Estate Market

Understanding the housing market is a matter of analyzing its many data sets. In a recent piece for Inman News, Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner offered his perspective on recent U.S. pending sales, new-home sales, and existing-home sales figures.

If you’re involved in the housing market, and I assume that most of you are, you know very well that this is a numbers business. All of us are surrounded by housing-related data day in and day out, and it can become a little overwhelming at times — even for an economist like myself.

Well, today I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about just a couple of the datasets that I think are particularly important to track and offer you my perspectives on them.

 

Housing

There’s no doubt that the ownership housing market really was a beacon of light as we moved through the pandemic period. Even though the market paused last spring as COVID-19 hit the nation, it snapped back remarkably quickly, unlike many other parts of the U.S. economy that are still suffering today.

This is important, as housing is a significant contributor to the broader economy. For example, last year, spending on the construction of new homes, residential remodeling and real estate brokers fees amounted to around $885 billion or 4.2 percent of gross domestic product.

But the real number is far greater than that when you add in all spending on all household services. The total amount of money spent on housing in aggregate was around $3.7 trillion or 17.5 percent of the country’s economy.

So, we know that the housing market is a very important part of our economy, but can that number continue to grow? Let’s take a look.

 

Inventory

The chart below shows the number of single-family homes for sale going back to 1983. As you can clearly see, there’s never been a time — at least since records were kept at the national level — where they were fewer homes for sale at any one time.

And this is a problem because the biggest issue the market faces today is that demand for homes is far exceeding supply.

A report I track very carefully — and I am sure that many of you do, too — is the National Association of Realtors pending home sales index, which is shown below.

Although it’s not a perfect indicator, as the survey only covers about 20 percent of all homes that go pending, it does give us a pretty good idea as to what the future may hold given that, all things being equal, about 80 percent of pending homes close within roughly two months, making it a leading indicator.

Line graph titled “Pending Home Sales Index” that shows the 12-month percentage change, seasonally adjusted. Along the x axis are months from January 2019 to March 2021. On the y axis is percentages from -40% to +30% with a line through the graph marking 0%. The line shows a significant decreased in April 2020 from 10% in February 2020 to -35% in April 2020, then a quick recover peaking around 25% in August 2020. Source NAR.

You can clearly see the massive pull back last spring because of the pandemic, but this was very quickly followed by a very significant surge.

It pulled back again last winter, but I would suggest that this was more a function of lack of homes for sale than anything else. However, look at the March spike.

Now, you might be thinking that this is a great number, but I would caution all of you not to pay too much attention to year-over-year changes, as they can be deceiving. You see, the index jumped because it was being compared with last March when the pandemic really started.

 

Closed sales

When we look at closed sales activity, it actually lines up pretty well with the pending home sales index, which fell in January and February. This is reflected in the contraction in closed sales that we saw this spring. And if the index is accurate, it suggests we may see closed sales activity pick up again over the next couple of months.

Line graph titled “Existing Home Sales” in millions seasonally adjusted. Along the x axis is months from January 2021 and April 2021. On the Y axis is numbers between 3.0 and 7.0, increasing by half points. The line shows a sharp decrease in April 2020 and a quick recover with a peak at 6.7 in October 2020. Source is NAR.

Of course, any time where housing demand exceeds supply, there is a solution — and that would be to build more homes.

But as you can see here, though more homes started to be built as we emerged from the financial crisis, the number today is essentially the same as it was two decades ago and has been declining for the past two years.

Two line graphs next to each other, the slide is titled “New Homes for Sale” on the left is Single Family New Homes for Sale in the US in thousands, seasonally adjusted. Along the x axis is years from 2000 to 2020 and on the y axis is numbers from 0 to 700 in increments of 100. This graph shows a peak between 2006 and 2008 just under 600, with a sharp decline after that, the lowest point in 2021. With some recover, the line peaks again in 2020 just above 300. On the right is New Homes for Sale by Stage of Construction. The light blue line is not-started, the green line is completed, and the navy blue line is under construction. Not-started is consistently the lowest number between 2000 and 2018, but in 2019 it rises above the green line. The navy blue line is consistently on the top of the graph, which a small dip that goes below the green line in 2009. Source: Census Bureau.

That’s significant, as the country has added over 12 million new households during the same period which has further fueled demand for housing. If there are no new homes to buy, well, that does one thing — and that’s to put more focus on the resale market, which has already led to very significant price increases.

 

New home market

But this particular report also offers some additional data sets, which I think give more clarity to the state of the new home market.

Before the housing market crashed, you can see that a majority of new homes that were on the market for sale were being built at that time, but — as the housing bubble was bursting — the market dropped, and the share of homes that were finished and for sale naturally rose.

But what I want you to look at is the far right of the chart above. You see the spike in the share of homes for sale that have not yet been started?

Well, given the massive increase in construction costs builders have, understandably, become far more cautious and are trying to sell more homes before they start to build them to mitigate some of the risk. It also tells me that they see demand that is not being met by the existing-home market and are looking to take it advantage of this.

When we look at new home sales, you can see that the trend, in essence, follows the number of homes for sale, but I would caution you on a couple of things.

Two graphs side by side, the slide is titled “New Home Sales” on the left is a line graph of us single family new home sales in thousands. On the x axis is dates from 2006 to 2020 and on the y axis is numbers from 0 to 1,600 in increments of 200. The line shows the peak in 2006 at 1,400 with a sharp decline afterwards until it bottoms out in 2010 at around 200. From there there’s a slow recover, with a peak in 2021 at around 1,000. On the right is a clustered column graph titled New Homes Sold by Stage of Construction. The green bars represent not started, the light blue columns represent under construction, and orange shows the completed projects. On the x axis is months from January 2020 to April 2021 and on the y axis I percentages from 20% to 45% in 5% increments. From Jan 2020 to July 2020 the orange bars representing completed are the highest bars, but from August 2020 to March 2021, the blue bars are the highest showing that homes under construction were the most common new homes purchased. Source: Census Bureau.

Firstly, these figures do not represent closed sales, as the Census Bureau, which prepares this dataset, considers a home sold once it has gone under contract. This makes sense, as a home can be sold before it has even broken ground. In essence, it’s more similar to NAR’s Pending Home Sales Index than anything else.

Look now at sales by stage of construction on the right. You can see that, as the pandemic was getting started, new homes that were ready to move into were what buyers wanted, and that accounted for over 42 percent of total new sales in April.

As the supply of finished homes dropped, homes that were being built took the lion’s share of sales — as they have done historically. However, look at April. The greatest share of sales — 37.7 percent — were homes that hadn’t yet been started.

Again, this supports the theory that builders remain cautious given ever-escalating costs, but it also shows that buyers’ needs are not being met by the resale market, so they were willing to wait, likely a considerable time, for their new home to be built.

Of course, the couple of datasets I’ve shared with you today are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the housing-related numbers you should all be tracking, as they can tell a story that can impact everyone involved in the development or sale of homes.

Mortgage rates

In addition to the data we have discussed today, you should be well versed in mortgage rate trends, demographic shifts, building permit activity and the economy in general — and you need to understand all these numbers at a local as well as national level.

For the vast majority of households, buying a home will be the most expensive thing that they will ever purchase in their lives. And given memories of the housing crash, as well as the significant increase in home prices that we’ve seen since last summer, it’s now more important than ever for you to be able to share your knowledge with your clients and be able to advise them accordingly.

 

Windermere’s Chief Economist, Matthew Gardner, often contributes to local and national publications with his insights to the housing market. Recently he offered his analysis of home sales numbers to Inman News, this is a repost of that video and article

For more market news and updates from Matthew Gardner,

visit our Market Update page.

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