By Amanda Fung
A number of key reports on housing data released in recent days are on a downward trend. Both existing and new home sales in the U.S. were down in June, and their previous month’s results were revised lowered. The lackluster sales data caused homebuilder confidence to plummet to its lowest level in 10 months Wednesday.
“The housing market has been losing momentum for several months,” said Stifel Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza, referring to a slump in housing starts, building permits, and sales during the second quarter. “Housing is a solid gauge of the overall health of the economy; weakness in housing raises a large red flag regarding the sustainability of domestic growth heading into the second half of the year.”
The U.S. Commerce Department said the sale of new U.S. single-family homes in June fell 5.3% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 631,000 — an eight-month low — and the previous month’s results were revised lower. While new home sales only account for 10% of the market, the latest existing home sales results weren’t any better.
Existing home sales fell for the third straight month in June. Existing home sales slipped 0.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.38 million units last month, down 2.2% from June 2017, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). May’s sales pace was revised down to 5.41 million units from 5.43 million units.
“Existing home sales help drive other sectors of the economy including consumer confidence and spending, as well as construction and lending activity,” Piegza said.
“Chronically low inventory is choking sales,” said Jonathan Miller, president and CEO of Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal firm, adding that higher-cost housing markets such as New York City and San Francisco are seeing a slowdown in sales more so because of homebuyers’ uncertainty over the Trump administration’s federal tax reform.
Inventory levels have fallen for three consecutive years and for eight of the past 10 years, according to Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. At the current sales pace, it would take 4.3 months to exhaust the total inventory of homes for sale; six months is considered a balanced market.
“Throw in rising mortgage rates… that isn’t helpful in terms of sales activity,” Miller said. While the rate increases are currently nominal for Americans living paycheck to paycheck, it’s enough to sway a person’s decision to make that home purchase. On Thursday, the average rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 4.54% from 4.52%, a week earlier, according to mortgage buyer Freddie Mac, adding that long-term loan rates have been running at their highest levels in seven years.
“Affordability pressures are increasingly a concern in many markets, as the combination of continuous price gains and higher mortgage rates appear to be giving more prospective buyers a pause,” said Freddie Mac Chief Economist Sam Khater in a press statement.
The slow sales activity is particularly perplexing because spring tends to be the busiest time of year since it’s known as buying season. Moreover, the economy has been humming along: The U.S. economy grew by an annualized rate of 4.1% in the second quarter — the fastest growth since the third quarter of 2014.
The housing affordability crisis
The problem is wage growth. When you adjust for inflation, wages haven’t risen in a decade, experts note. As the lack of inventory drives home prices up, affordability becomes an issue. Wages aren’t keeping pace and consumers are priced out of markets by 6%-8% — depending on which home price index you look at, in terms of home values and wages, according to Piegza.
Median home prices in the U.S. have increased annually for 76 straight months (a little over 6.3 years), according to the NAR. In June, the median price of an existing home was $276,900, up 5.2% from the same time last year.
But experts expect prices to follow other housing data. “Home prices are the kaboose of the train,” Miller said. “You’ll’ see prices soften this year.”
We may already be seeing signs of prices leveling off. Standard & Poor’s said that its S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national home price index posted a 6.4% annual gain in April, down from 6.5% from a month earlier. May results will be released July 31. Meanwhile, the FHFA House Price Index rose 0.2% in May, one-tenth of a percentage point less than expected, according to Bloomberg.
“While we’re not seeing the rug pulled out of the housing market, there are clear signs and a reason for caution,” Piegza said.