WASHINGTON (AP) — Construction companies built more apartment complexes in September, sparking a temporary rise in housing starts for a real estate market that otherwise appears to have crested during the summer.
Housing starts last month rose 6.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.21 million homes, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. But a 17 percent surge in multi-family housing — which includes apartments — accounts for almost all of that increase.
New construction and sales of existing homes surged in the first half of the year as more Americans found work and the unemployment rate dipped to a solid 5.1 percent. But tight inventories, rising prices and the absence of meaningful wage growth have capped growth as affordability has become an issue — a problem that new construction can help resolve.
"Builders are stepping up to meet that demand but doing so cautiously," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities. "So, for beleaguered buyers who can't find what they are looking for because of a dearth of listings, there is a bit of help on the way."
Construction rose last month in the Northeast, South and West, while falling in the Midwest.
Housing starts have soared 12 percent in the first nine months of 2015. But the pace of building retreated from its June apex, in part due to the expiration of tax incentives for developers in New York.
Approved permits fell 5 percent in September to an annual rate of 1.1 million, a sign that construction will likely slow in the coming months.
Sales of existing homes similarly accelerated through the start of the summer, only to decline in August. The tight inventories — just 5.2 months' supply of homes were listed for sale — have propped up prices, as the median cost to buy a home increased 4.7 percent over the year to $228,700, according to the National Association of Realtors.
A greater share of the country is also choosing to rent. The percentage of Americans owning homes has dipped to 63.4 percent, the lowest level in 48 years. The influx of millennials and downsizing baby boomers into the rental market has caused monthly leases to jump 3.8 percent over the past year, according to the real estate firm Zillow.
But price appreciation has also slowed as many Americans lack the income to spend more on housing. Average hourly earnings have increased just 2.2 percent to $25.09, meaning that home values and rental costs are rising at roughly double the rate of incomes.
There are signs that more Americans are renovating their homes instead of buying new properties. A new index compiled by BuildZoom — which identifies contractors for projects — found that renovations are running 2.8 percent above their 2005 level. Meanwhile, despite the gains of the past year, new home construction remains 57 percent below its 2005 level during the housing bubble.
Still, remodeling activity has been flat during the past year as new home construction has advanced. The gains have left construction firms more optimistic.
The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index released Monday rose this month to 64. The last time the reading was higher was October 2005 at 68.
Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor. The index has been consistently above 50 since July last year.