Not surprisingly, US homebuilding dropped sharply in March as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on nearly every industry and market across the globe. The data for March is so dire, in fact, that it marks the largest month-over-month (MoM) percentage decrease in housing starts since March 1984.
Housing Starts, Permits & Completions
Privately-owned housing starts were down 22.3 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 1.216 million units. Single-family starts decreased 17.5 percent to a rate of 856,000 units; starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment plunged 31.7 percent to a rate of 360,000 units.
Privately-owned housing authorizations decreased 6.8 percent to a rate of 1.353 million units in March. Single-family authorizations were down 12.0 percent to a pace of 884,000 units. Privately-owned housing completions were down 6.1 percent to a SAAR of 1.227 million units. Per the US Census Bureau Report, seasonally-adjusted total housing stats by region included:
- Northeast: -42.5 percent (-41.4 percent last month)
- South: -21.3 percent (+15.2 percent last month)
- Midwest: -21.5 percent (+16.7 percent last month)
- West: -18.2 percent (-18.2 percent last month)
Seasonally-adjusted single-family housing starts by region included:
- Northeast: -17.5 percent (+3.0 percent last month)
- South: -24.5 percent (+18.5 percent last month)
- Midwest: -25.7 percent (+4.9 percent last month)
- West: +6.1 percent (-13.8 percent last month)
The 30-year fixed mortgage rate dipped in March from 3.47 to 3.45, the lowest level since 2016. According to the latest National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), homebuilder confidence crashed in mid-April indicating the single largest monthly change in the history of the index, which plunged 42 points to a reading of 30.
The near-term horizon doesn't look much better.
“April will likely be a lot worse -- it took until mid-March or even later for many states to tighten restrictions, and there’s a real possibility that many builders fast-tracked what they could in those early weeks before bowing to reality,” Zillow economist Matthew Speakman said in a statement. “With so much uncertainty across the economy, and the outlook not yet getting any clearer, it’s unlikely that builder activity will revert to anything close to ‘normal’ levels any time soon.”
Fallout in the Larger Housing Market
For the week ending April 3, mortgage applications for purchases decreased 12 percent from a week earlier. (-33 percent YoY). Over the past four weeks, the gauge has declined nearly 95 points, the sharpest monthly drop since mid-2010. “Economic weakness and the surge in unemployment continue to weigh heavily on the housing market,” said Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Joel Kan. “Purchase activity declined again, with the index dropping to its lowest level since 2015.”
Factors identified by Speakman that are contributing to housing’s downturn include:
- Social distancing and mandatory stay-at-home policies (especially in large markets like California and New York) are rendering traditional home tours/shows essentially impossible.
- As mentioned in the employment section, initial claims for unemployment benefits underwent a meteoric rise (from 282,000 to 3.283 million) during the week ending March 21. Growing economic and employment uncertainty will lead people to shy away from big-ticket purchases, especially homes.
Virus-response policies are creating unintended consequences, e.g. lenders handling payments on federally-backed home loans are required to give borrowers no-penalty grace periods of as much as six months. The percentage of loans in forbearance grew to 2.66 percent as of April 1, according to MBA. On March 2, the rate was 0.25 percent. For loans backed by Ginnie Mae, which serves low- and moderate-income borrowers, the rate jumped to 4.25 percent. Some analysts predict upwards of one-third of homeowners could stop paying their mortgages as job losses mount.
The loan servicers, by contrast, are required to pay bondholders whether or not borrowers pay. As a result, servicers are facing a liquidity shortfall that could be devastating for some independent mortgage companies. The MBA said that 3.45 percent of loans held by nonbanks have gone into forbearance.
“Even if a quarter of all borrowers request forbearance for six months or longer, cash demands on servicers could exceed $75 billion and could climb well above $100 billion,” MBA’s Mike Fratantoni said. The trade group called on the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury to create a liquidity facility that mortgage servicers could borrow from to remain solvent.
For the housing market, “everything comes down to time and money,” construction attorney Steve Lesser said. “If you look at it that way you see how unpredictable this virus is on the industry. We don’t know how big it’s going to be, how long it will last and what its full impact is going to be.”