Nearly 836,000 multifamily units are under construction, the most since 1973, according to Jay Parsons, chief economist at RealPage. But most new construction targets higher-income tenants and not the lower end, where supply shortages are most extreme, he said.
I have written about the dearth of starter homes and I would suspect a similar dynamic is at play here. Builders and developers can make more money on multifamily units with higher prices. If someone is going to go to all the effort for development and construction – and this can be quite a bit of effort in certain places – they would prefer to gain more financially in the end. The number of places that require the construction of affordable housing alongside market rate housing or seriously pursue cheaper housing are limited.
If these higher-income units come on line, it will add to a bifurcated housing market where those with enough resources have plenty of choices and those with fewer resources have limited and possibly unpleasant options.
Homes ranging in price from $100,000 to $250,000, the typical cost for an entry-level home, have seen nearly a 28% decrease in inventory from a year ago, says the National Association of Realtors.
And smaller homes are also in short supply. In 1999, 37% of newly-built single-family homes were smaller than 1,800 square feet. By 2020, that share had fallen to 25%, Dietz said.
In comparison, in 1999, 66% of newly-built single-family homes were smaller than 2,400 square feet while in 2020, that share had fallen to 57%.
These are two very important factors for getting into purchasing a home. A lower price means a smaller down payment and mortgage is needed. Smaller homes are cheaper because they have fewer square feet and cost less to construct.
And without this ability to enter the housing market, it will take potential homebuyers longer to enter, if they can enter at all. This precludes them from building housing equity and stepping up to larger or more expensive residences in the future. It limits the ability of people to pursue homeownership, a goal many Americans have.
Tackling both price and housing size will be difficult in many markets where developers, builders, and those in the real estate industry can get more. Yet, here is an opportunity to appeal to an important sector of potential homeowners if solutions can be put into practice.
Daryl Fairweather: We are not building enough housing for everybody who needs a place to live. We built fewer homes in the 2010s than in any decade going back to the 1960s, and at the same time millennials are the biggest generation and they’re entering into home-buying age. Millennials aren’t living in their parents’ basement any more or shacking up with roommates, they want a place of their own, and we didn’t build any housing for them in the last decade because we are still so traumatized by the last housing crisis. We didn’t put any investment into housing…
Daryl Fairweather: The government has estimated that we are short about 4 million homes in this country, and that number is likely growing, especially since the pandemic.
In my opinion, the emphasis in the rest of the segment on institutional buyers is a weird way to go given the numbers cited above. If we need over 4 million housing units, it seems like more of this falls on developers, builders, and communities to open up opportunities for new housing for millennials and others who really want it.
I wonder how much of this now works like it seems to in the auto industry. Auto makers have shifted to making trucks and SUVs because there is demand and a higher profit margin. These vehicles are not greener but there is a lot of money to be made. Is the same true of starter homes? Smaller units simply do not bring in as much money as a larger house with more amenities. And, if builders and developers have to go through a significant process to purchase land, get approval, and go through construction, wouldn’t they want more money at the end?
I think we should ask about the civic responsibility of those who can approve homes and/or build homes. Don’t we need more housing? Shouldn’t this be a shared responsibility across actors? Why are so many Americans willing to get into their particular housing unit and then shut the door to those who want a similar opportunity?
Earlier this year, Realtor.com estimated the gap between the number of homes needed and the number of homes available at 5.24 million. That estimate in June represented an increase of 1.4 million above the estimated 3.84 million gap in 2019, primarily because residential construction hasn’t kept up with household formations.
From January 2012 to June 2021, 12.3 million new American households were formed, but just 7 million new single-family houses were built, according to Realtor.com.
The housing shortage is particularly acute in the more-affordable range. Newly built houses with a median sales price of $300,000 represented just 32 percent of builder sales in the first half of 2021, compared with 43 percent during the first half of 2018, according to Realtor.com. To close the gap between demand and supply, builders would need to double their pace of construction for five or six years, Realtor.com economists estimate.
I have been trying to keep track of this for several years now: where are the new cheaper homes? If home builders are interested in selling homes, why not also create products for this part of the market?
There could be lots of reasons for this present state. But, this is not just a problem of 2021; this has been going on for at least a few years. Who can or will act to address this? Is this a pressing social concern that requires attention or just something to note every so often?
Imagine a time in the near future after this trend of the last ten years or so has truly piled up. How will younger adults pursue homeownership, a goal many Americans still say is desirable? Will a lower end of the housing market simply disappear to be overshadowed by more expensive, larger homes that truly generate profits?
If this continues, I would not be surprised to see more calls for housing interventions beyond the market.
The supply of entry-level housing, which Freddie Mac defines as homes up to 1,400 square feet, is near a five-decade low, and data on new construction from the National Association of Home Builders shows that single-family homes are significantly bigger than they were years ago.
Homeowners from previous generations had access to smaller homes at the start of their financial lives. In the late 1970s, an average of 418,000 new units of entry-level housing were built each year, according to data from Freddie Mac. By the 2010s, that number had fallen to 55,000 new units a year. For 2020, an estimated 65,000 new entry-level homes were completed…
“What was really striking to me was the consistency in the decline in the share of entry-level homes, irrespective of geography,” Mr. Khater said. “The thing that struck me the most was that really, it’s all endemic. It’s all over the U.S. It doesn’t matter where.”…
Homeownership leads to greater wealth for those who buy earlier. An analysis from the Urban Institute estimates that those who became homeowners between the ages of 25 and 34 accumulated $150,000 in median housing wealth by their early 60s. Meanwhile, those who waited until between the ages of 35 and 44 to buy netted $72,000 less in median housing wealth.
Three things stand out to me from this article:
The decline in the construction of these smaller homes is real. The numbers cited above suggest roughly 15% of these smaller homes are constructed now compared to the late 1970s.
At the same time, the definition of an entry-level homes is contingent on square footage. These days, 1,400 square feet is not that large for a home. These standards have changed over the decades; new homes in the 1950s in Levittown were more around 1,000 square feet while many new homes today are over 2,500 square feet. As builders construct larger homes (presumably making more money) and some buyers want larger homes, what is now an entry-level home may have changed.
The first rung on the homeownership ladder has long been an affordable “starter home.” These houses, with their smaller footprints and selling prices, allowed young homeowners to build wealth and upsize as they started their families…
Supply of “entry-level housing”—which Freddie Mac defines as homes under 1,400 square feet—is at a five-decade low.
Surging prices and stiff competition mean there aren’t enough smaller, more affordable starter homes to go around in many regions. The pandemic and subsequent recession, along with the student debt crisis and delayed family formation, contributed to frustration and despair among younger house hunters…
Lately, data from the National Association of Home Builders shows new construction is again giving priority to higher square footage for single-family homes, a trend likely spurred by the widespread shift to working from home and house hunters’ need for more space.
I wonder about the role of local governments. How many urban neighborhoods and suburban communities allow for or encourage the construction of smaller homes. It might take some extra work for a community to work with a developer who is willing to construct smaller and cheaper homes. At the same time, some of the existing members of the community might not be happy about the change as smaller homes are often interpreted as dragging down values and the character of the community. At the least, wealthier communities are unlikely to encourage such homes unless they are at a higher price point – and then it is no longer a starter home.
Some data from recent years suggests builders and younger homebuyers may not see eye-to-eye on what kinds of homes they want:
A new survey from the National Association of Home Builders suggests that millennials — the demographic that should be the big driver of home buying over the next decade — is growing increasingly pragmatic about size. In 2018, one-third of millennials said they would trade smaller size for greater affordability; in 2007 just one in five millennials found that tradeoff palatable.
Indeed, in its most recent annual report, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies notes the builder vs. buyer mismatch. “With millions of millennials moving into their prime home-buying years, demand for smaller, more affordable homes seems poised for a surge,” the report stated.
Yet builders aren’t interested in ponying up the supply.
The JCHS says that in 2017 small homes represented just 22% of new homes, compared to an average of 32% between 1999 and 2011. And to be clear, the JCHS is not talking about tiny homes for millennials. It defines small as 1,800 square feet or less. That is still bigger than new homes’ median size a generation ago.
Just how much smaller are the homes that millennials desire? The median new home size decreased last year to around 2,300 square feet. What exactly is the range of home size millennials most desire (and how does this size interact with other important factors such as locations or features of the home)?
On the other side, builders are likely interested in constructing larger homes because they can make more money off each unit. Additionally, there is still some demand for larger homes though this could change in the coming years with more millennials in the housing market alongside older residents who are no longer buying homes or who are looking to sell their own large homes.
The trend toward larger homes really took off in the postwar suburban era. At the time, this could be linked to growing family size with the Baby Boomer generation. (Interestingly, as household sizes decreased in recent years, homes continued to get bigger.)
There are regional differences regarding large homes. McMansions are everywhere in the United States but more culturally acceptable in Dallas than in New York City. Many metropolitan regions have housing prices that make having a big house possible (compared to New York, San Francisco, LA, and Seattle).
McMansions are popular with some but America has plenty of large homes that would not qualify as McMansions. From large urban condos and homes to large rural properties, Americans can find plenty of big homes to purchase.
Statistically, the generation that coined the phrase “adulting” has put it off longer than previous generations (see marriage, kids, home ownership). According to Zillow, millennials are currently the largest group of homebuyers, but CEO Spencer Rascoff notes that “starter home” inventory is limited, forcing millennials to rent until they can afford the bigger, more expensive crop of houses. On the bright side, chances are their Pinterest and DIY skills have their rentals looking lovely.
The market for new “starter homes” is drying up, mostly on the supply side. As credit markets recover, there are more and more people who could be buying their first homes … if only builders could build them. But for a host of reasons, they can’t:
Materials costs have risen.
They lost a lot of their labor force during the economic downturn.
Communities entitled large lots during the boom, and now they won’t zone them for smaller parcels.
Cash-strapped local governments have raised permitting and other fees.
Building codes and other requirements make it harder to build cheap.
This makes it extremely difficult to build a house for less than $200,000 in many places, which is a hefty multiple of local median incomes.
Three quick responses:
1. I know this doesn’t get much discussion in many industries but when they say it is difficult to build for less than $200k, what exactly does this mean? A home at that price won’t meet their profit goals? What kinds of profits do developers and builders make at the lower end of the housing market as opposed to the higher end? Builders can’t make any money off new started homes or they can’t make enough money for them to see it as worth their time?
2. As noted, communities have some influence on this process. How many are really willing to zone for starter homes and/or have different guidelines for starter homes?
3. Isn’t this an opportunity to construct homes more efficiently? It sounds like there is some turmoil in costs – material, more uncertain labor, higher fees and requirements – but this is where the housing industry could find some new solutions.