Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

U.S. Housing Starts Top Forecasts on Multifamily Construction

U.S. new-home construction rose by more than forecast in March on a rebound in multifamily starts, giving a boost to first-quarter economic growth, government figures showed Tuesday.

Highlights of Housing Starts (March)

  • Residential starts rose 1.9% to 1.32m annualized rate (est. 1.27m) after upwardly revised 1.3 mln pace in prior month
  • Multifamily home starts rose 14.4%; single-family fell 3.7%
  • Permits, a proxy for future construction of all types of homes, rose 2.5% to 1.35m rate (est. 1.32m) after 1.32m pace 

Key Takeaways

The results show a tight job market, improved finances and consumers’ elevated confidence to purchase big-ticket items are supporting construction. That means homebuilding probably contributed to economic growth for the second consecutive quarter.

The strength in March was concentrated in multifamily construction such as apartment buildings. That category tends to be volatile; March’s advance in starts followed a 10.2 percent drop in the prior month. Permits for single-family homes were a weak spot, dropping 5.5 percent, the biggest decline in seven years, to the lowest level since September.

While demand remains solid, a shortage of workers, rising costs for materials and a scarcity of ready-to-build lots are limiting gains in building activity. With borrowing costs rising, affordability is also becoming a hurdle, as property values outpace potential buyers’ income growth.

Sentiment among homebuilders fell in April for a fourth straight month amid limited land availability and higher lumber prices, according to data Monday from the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo.

Nevertheless, sentiment remains elevated, and in an indication that builders will remain busy in coming months, the number of homes under construction at the end of March reached 1.125 million, the highest level since July 2007. Single-family dwellings under construction inched up to 504,000, the most since mid-2008.

What Our Economists Say

The overall strength in March housing starts is all the more encouraging given that the colder-than-average weather is likely to have curtailed gains. Fundamentals appear to support a positive outlook for the construction sector, despite labor constraints and rising material costs. Demand should also be supported by a tight labor market and steady pay gains.


-- Niraj Shah and Carl Riccadonna, Bloomberg Economics

Read more for the full reaction note.

Other Details

  • Single-family home starts fell to a 867,000 rate from 900,000 the prior month
  • Groundbreaking on multi-family homes rose to an annual rate of 452,000
  • Gains in housing starts were led by Midwest, with a 22.4 percent advance; Northeast rose 0.8 percent, while South and West dipped
  • Report shows wide margin of error, with a 90 percent chance that the March housing-starts figure was between a 10.5 percent drop and 14.3 percent gain
  • Report released jointly by the Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington

— With assistance by Chris Middleton

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