New Homes are Hard to Find

In most parts of the country, a new home is hard to find.

“The inventory of unsold new homes is at its lowest level in history,” said  David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders  (NAHB). During the first two months of 2011, only an estimated 150,000 new homes  were for sale nationwide, according to census data.

In a “normal” economic recovery, this would be the moment when new-home  construction surges. The U.S. population is still growing and those people need  places to live. Usually, developers hire construction workers to build those  homes, creating new jobs and solid economic growth. New-home construction has  led the way in every economic recovery since World War II, according to the  economists at Freddie Mac.

However, things are different this time around.


Today, the millions of mortgages  still at risk of foreclosure have put continued downward pressure on home  prices, prompting many potential borrowers to put off buying a home until prices  begin to rebound. The unfortunate result of the lack of sales is that workers  aren’t hired to build, housing demand declines and the recovery of the housing  market and overall economy is stalled.

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Last year, the sale of new homes broke a record in a bad way. On a  non-seasonally-adjusted basis, only 305,000 new homes were sold in 2011,  according to census data, the lowest level since the government started keeping  track in 1963. Just to compare, new home sales peaked at about 1.3 million  during the housing boom.

Pent up demand

The good news is that the U.S. population continues to grow, creating pent-up  demand for new housing units that will eventually have to be built.

“We are not creating new homes to accommodate our growing population,” said  Nic Retsinas, senior lecturer in real estate at the Harvard Business School.  Normally, according to Retsinas, 1.1 to 1.2 million new households form every  year, yet the recession has dramatically slowed that process.

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Over the last three years, the number of new households formed was cut in  half. Why? The economy, mainly the lack of jobs, has forced many grown children  to move back home and has even forced older Americans to move in with their  adult children. The number of multi-generational households increased  dramatically over the last few years. Between 2008 and 2010, there was a 15%  spike in the number of homes which had three generations or more living under  one roof, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau.

“We estimate 2 million households that would have normally formed are waiting  as pent-up demand,” said Crowe.

Years of potential supply

However, even if the housing recovery speeds up and the number of new  households returns to a more normal level, another issue looms that will not  only affect demand, but home prices as well: vacant lots. The construction boom  and subsequent downturn has resulted in millions of vacant lots that developers  had prepped for new-home construction that never happened.

In the area surrounding Naples, Fla., for example, including Collier and Lee  counties, there are just 1,081 new homes for sale, a seven-month supply, but  more than 13,000 vacant lots prepared for construction.

“There are years of supply in most of the marquee markets that you talk  about,” said Tim Cornwell, a demographer and principal for The Concord Group, a  real estate consultancy in San Francisco. “If a huge demand started up, there  are a ton of builders that would build them for you.”

The homes would still have to be constructed, contractors hired and materials  purchased. But the lots are prepared and the land costs are cheap. Even if the  housing markets in areas like south Florida improve dramatically, the supply of  new homes can easily rise to match the demand, no matter how high the demand  gets. That will cut into the potential upside for home prices.

Of course, despite the limited supply available for sale today and limited  upside in terms of price appreciation, some borrowers just prefer new  construction. If you’re in the market for a new home, be prepared to compete  with other homebuyers over the few new listings left on the market, especially  if you’re shopping for a new home that was recently finished.

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