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About


Real Estate Research provided analysis of topical research and current issues in the fields of housing and real estate economics. Authors for the blog included the Atlanta Fed's Jessica Dill, Kristopher Gerardi, Carl Hudson, and analysts, as well as the Boston Fed's Christopher Foote and Paul Willen.

In December 2020, content from Real Estate Research became part of Policy Hub. Future articles will be released in Policy Hub: Macroblog.

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January 3, 2018

Where Is the Housing Sector Headed?

One element that has distinguished the expansion following the Great Recession from expansions following prior recessions is the slow recovery of the housing sector. Recent data releases relating to home sales activity and new construction point to a housing market that continues to grow at a slow but steady pace. Single-family starts are increasing but remain low by historical norms. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 12-month moving average of multifamily starts has peaked after increasing steadily over the last several years. The data releases since the initial fourth-quarter GDPNow nowcast  on October 30 have, on net, brightened the outlook for residential investment.

These numbers tell us where we are but not what lies ahead.

To supplement official data releases, the Atlanta Fed collects anecdotal information from market participants. This information helps us detect shifts in trends and concerns that may influence the future direction of housing. Results from our recent industry forums and surveys indicate that (1) we should expect more of the same slow, steady growth, and (2) there are downside risks to the outlook.

On December 1, in conjunction with the Georgia State University Department of Real Estate, the Atlanta Fed held a Real Estate Industry Forum to discuss current trends and challenges facing the real estate industry. The good news from the panel of chief economists was that demographics—especially with millennials entering the age of household formation and house purchasing—and other underlying fundamentals, such as employment growth and tight inventory, continue to support an optimistic outlook for housing demand. The supply of housing is where most of the concerns sit.

The industry forum panelists noted that some geographies face supply constraints that will hinder the delivery of housing sufficient to match increased fundamental demand. Such observations are consistent with responses we received in our November 2017 Construction and Real Estate Survey. In the poll, most builders reported labor cost increases from the year-ago level; nearly two-thirds of respondents said labor costs had increased more than 3 percent. All builders said material costs had increased over the same period. Many continued to note that the amount of available credit for construction and development remained insufficient to meet demand. Builders said they expect construction activity over the next three months to be flat to down.

When asked if they would be able to meet a sudden spike in demand for homes, Southeast builders' responses were split: 46 percent said they would not be able to handle the spike in the demand, while 38 percent said they would. Most builders indicated they faced challenges with hiring and that it was affecting their ability to grow their businesses. Of those experiencing difficulty hiring, more than half attributed it to the homebuilding industry—that is, too much demand for construction laborers or too few workers. One-fifth attributed the labor shortage to workers lacking the necessary skills set. The responses to open-ended, follow-up questions reiterated these findings; respondents cited lack of skills and poor work ethic as the top challenges to finding quality workers.

One interpretation of builders' inability to grow their business or respond to a spike in demand is that the market is near equilibrium. That is, production is at a point such that increasing the scale of operations is not profitable, and scaling back production does not improve profitability either. Improving the supply of labor can be done, but will take time in terms of training and skill acquisition. The timing and extent to which the access to financing can be improved is less known. While underlying fundamentals support an optimistic outlook for the housing sector, supply chain constraints imply only measured near-term residential investment growth.

Photo of Jessica Dill By Jessica Dill, economic policy analyst in the Research Department and

Photo of Carl Hudson Carl Hudson, director of the Center for Real Estate Analytics


September 29, 2017

Did Harvey Influence the Housing Market?

The August housing and construction data are starting to trickle in. So far, the data tell us that residential investment could be a drag on third-quarter gross domestic product growth. They also tell us that U.S. existing home sales were down slightly (-1.65 percent) from the month-earlier level but flat to slightly up (0.19 percent) from the year-ago level. Housing starts tell a similar story: total starts were down slightly (-0.84 percent) from one month earlier but up slightly (1.37 percent) from one year earlier. Year over year, new residential sales were down 1.2 percent.

The Atlanta Fed conducts a monthly survey of residential brokers and homebuilders in the Southeast to detect emerging real estate trends before the release of official statistics. In the most recent Construction and Real Estate Survey, many builders said they expect home sales to be flat over the next three months relative to the same period last year, while most brokers continued to anticipate slightly higher sales. A large share of builders expect construction activity over the next three months to hold steady or increase slightly.

The survey included a handful of special questions to give better insight into current market conditions and pressure points. The first question asked whether Hurricane Harvey had an impact (directly or indirectly) on their business. Most respondents said that Harvey did not.

Chart-one

Those who said they experienced some effects from Harvey (35 percent of homebuilders and 24 percent of residential brokers) were asked to provide more details. Some respondents said they have seen upward pressure on fuel costs, extended lead time on deliveries, and additional pressure on already tight labor markets. Several respondents cautioned, however, that it was too soon to assess the full extent of the impact.

We should note that Hurricane Irma passed directly through the region toward the end of the polling period. As a result, disentangling which storm the comments referred to was sometimes difficult. We will follow up on the impact of Irma in next month's poll. We hope that affected builders and brokers will be able to respond.

In the second set of special questions, we asked residential brokers and homebuilders to look ahead over the next 12 months and rank risks to their housing market outlook. Declining affordability emerged as the top risk facing the housing market, followed by supply-chain constraints and lack of for-sale inventory.

Looking ahead over the next 12 months, please rank order the following risks to your housing market.
Average Rank Order Score
Builder Rank Order Score
Broker Rank Order Score
Declining affordability
57 56 57
Supply chain constraints
51 64 38
Lack of available for-sale inventory
41 28 54
Waning consumer confidence
35 32 38
Other
21 27 15
Credit availability challenges
11 17 6

Note: Respondents were asked to rank order the factors. A rank of one scored 7 points, two scored 5 points, three scored 3 points, and four scored 1 point. No scores were assigned to ranks greater than 4.

Separating broker and builder responses shifts the top risks a bit. Considering broker-only responses, the top risks were declining affordability and lack of for-sale inventory. For the builder-only responses, the top risks were supply-chain constraints and declining affordability.

Anticipating that supply-chain constraints would, in fact, be one of the top risks to builders' housing market outlook, we also asked builders to complete the same exercise with supply-chain constraints. Builders said rising costs (of vacant developed lots, or VDLs, materials, and land) along with labor shortages topped the list of supply-chain constraints.

Looking ahead over the next 12 months, please rank order the following risks to your housing market.
Rank Order Score
Rising cost of vacant developed lots (VDLs)
43
Upward pressure on material costs
30
Labor shortages
23
Rising cost of land
22
Other
21
Dwindling lot inventories
19
Costly land titling process
17
Upward pressure on labor costs
14
Construction financing challenges
11
Burdensome/costly local ordinances
11
A&D financing challenges
7
Burdensome/costly federal regulations
3
Burdensome/costly state regulations
3

Note: Respondents were asked to rank order the factors. A rank of one scored 7 points, two scored 5 points, three scored 3 points, and four scored 1 point. No scores were assigned to ranks greater than 4.

The responses to these special questions confirm some of the anecdotes we've heard through other channels—that is, builders are worried about declining affordability and tight inventory levels. Also, importantly, supply-chain constraints remain a barrier to any acceleration in bringing new inventory to market. Interestingly, ADC (or acquisition, development, and construction) credit challenges appear to be less pressing now than in years past, while concerns about construction costs appear to have become more elevated. Views on labor shortages remain unchanged—they have been and continue to be a top concern.

We conducted this poll September 5–13, 2017. It reflects the views of 17 homebuilders and 18 residential brokers across the Southeast. View the Southeast Construction and Real Estate Survey results in more detail on the Atlanta Fed website.

Photo of Jessica Dill By Jessica Dill, economic policy analyst in the Research Department and


Photo of Carl Hudson Carl Hudson, director of the Center for Real Estate Analytics


November 23, 2016

Commercial Construction Update: Third-Quarter 2016

The Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics conducts a quarterly commercial construction poll to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry as it relates to the performance of the economy. In this post, we will discuss a few of the more interesting results from our third-quarter poll. To view all of the results, please visit the Construction and Real Estate Survey web page.

Pace of multifamily construction appears to be slowing
After several years with most incoming reports indicating that the pace of multifamily construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level, it seemed noteworthy that indications from contacts were much more mixed in the third-quarter report. Half of respondents noted that activity had increased from the year-ago level, but the rest indicated that activity was flat to down.

These reports seem to align with the incoming Census Bureau data on multifamily starts through November 17, which, when aggregated to a quarterly frequency, reveal a slight decline (-6.2 percent) from the year-earlier level.

Available finance perceived to be sufficient to meet demand
Since about the second quarter of 2013, the majority of our commercial construction contacts have indicated that the amount of available commercial construction finance has been sufficient to meet demand. Interestingly, the share reporting that credit was insufficient to meet demand spiked in the first quarter of 2016 and remained high into the second quarter. The reports from our commercial construction contacts seemed to align closely with the results of the April and July Federal Reserve Board's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOS) on the lending environment in the first and second quarters. The survey suggested that banks had tightened their standards for commercial real estate loans.

Interestingly, the most recent survey results deviated from the SLOOS. The share of contacts in our commercial construction poll that indicated credit was insufficient to meet demand continued to drop in the third quarter despite the fact that results from the October 2016 SLOOS indicated that banks continued to tighten their standards for commercial real estate loans. Granted, our commercial construction poll and the SLOOS pose slightly different questions to different types of respondents, but the divergence in results that have typically trended in a similar fashion seems notable nonetheless.

More hiring on the horizon?
Each quarter, we poll our contacts about their hiring plans. The majority (74 percent) in the third quarter indicated that their fourth-quarter hiring plans entail increasing head count by a modest to significant amount. This increase is more or less consistent with the entire history of responses; most respondents have always indicated their hiring plans were flat to up.

The last time such a large fraction of respondents indicated they had plans to increase their head count was more than two years ago, back in the second quarter of 2014. Since a large share of respondents answered the same way, can this be taken as a signal that hiring will indeed increase in the coming quarter? To investigate, we charted quarterly figures for construction new hires using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey to get a sense for what happened the last time contacts overwhelmingly indicated they had plans to increase hiring and used markers to call attention to second- and third-quarter figures of 2014.

It appears the number of construction hires did in fact increase between the second and third quarters that year, so perhaps this most recent result will serve as a leading indicator. We will keep an eye on this series to see if there is an increase in the number of construction hires in the fourth quarter of 2016.

August 27, 2015

The Multifamily Market: Is a Hot Market Overheating?

Moody's/RCA National commercial property price index, which is based on repeat-sales transactions, has risen 36 percent over the past two years. Such increases in commercial real estate (CRE) prices have raised concerns that the market is overheating (see here). Multifamily is one CRE property type that for a couple of years has been attracting a great deal of lender interest and thus growing concern regarding potential overheating (see here).

Looking around Midtown Atlanta, it is easy to wonder if multifamily housing construction is getting ahead of itself. According to the Midtown Alliance, within just a 0.5-square-mile portion of Midtown Atlanta, 981 units have been recently delivered, 3,392 units are under construction and 4,732 are in various stages of planning. Dodge Pipeline reports that the entire Midtown/Five Points submarket has 4,865 units under way. For reference, peak activity in the Midtown/Five Points area from 2003 to 2007 was 4,636 units under construction with a total of 10,831 units completed. The question arises as to what extent are happenings in Midtown indicative of the broader market trend.

Yield spreads—the capitalization rate on recent apartment transactions (current rental income divided by sales price) minus the yield on Treasury bonds—serve as one indicator of optimism in a market. A narrow spread is consistent with reduced pricing for risk, which is associated with “frothiness.” According to Real Capital Analytics, apartment yield spreads in the second quarter of 2015 stood at 366 basis points (bps), which is around 250 bps higher than prerecession lows and in line with 2003–04 levels (see chart 1). So by this measure, apartment activity does not appear too frothy on a nationwide market basis.

Apartment-yield-spreadsApartment-yield-spreads

Of course, yield spreads vary significantly by market area and by property type. Breaking the U.S. market into six major markets (Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; San Francisco; and Los Angeles) and all others reveals that the major markets have seen yield spreads fall relative to all other markets. (The major markets account for 36 percent of transaction dollars with New York and San Francisco alone accounting for 20 percent of the U.S. total.) Though shrinking during the last several quarters, the current 150 bps gap between the major and non-major markets is wider than at any time since 2002. One possible explanation is that the anticipated rent growth of the projects sold in the major markets is higher than in nonmajor markets.

So what to make of this? While multifamily markets have been active during the postrecession period, this activity is not necessarily unjustified. Given that the population of 20- to-34-year-olds will continue to grow, demographics point to greater demand for rental property (see chart 2). Supply has not yet shown signs of deteriorating fundamentals since vacancy rates have remained low as new product has been delivered, and rent growth has held steady (see chart 3).

Us-population-of-key-apartment-renting-cohorts

Apartment-vacancy-growth

How long will preferences for renting persist? How long can real rents continue to grow? How is this new activity being financed? If new projects are penciled out using unrealistic rent growth assumptions and demand falls, rent growth expectations won't be met and the projects may look overdone in retrospect. Regardless of whether current activity indicates overheating, it seems important to keep a close eye on demand.

Photo of Carl HudsonBy Carl Hudson, director for the Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed's research department