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High Housing Starts Don’t Reflect Reality

Tuesday, 16 Jun 2009 | 10:57 AM ET
CNBC.com

So my first thought was: there’s got to be something wrong with this number. A 17 percent surge in housing starts didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at first, but after talking to my minions I’m now getting the picture.

First of all, the biggest part of the gain was in multi-family, up 61.7 percent month to month, but that’s after falling 49 percent in April. Patrick Newport, an economist at HIS Global Insight, says the multi-family market is still in a “deep slump,” despite the monthly jump. “Permits, which better gauge underlying conditions, fell 8.3 percent, the 11th consecutive monthly decline, to a record low of 110,000 units 9annual rate,” says Newport. “The recent sharp decline in this market is related to financing. Some builders are overwhelmed with debt. Others cannot find funding to finance projects with positive net present values.”

As for single family, Dan Oppenheim over at Credit Suisse tells me that “the bit of stabilization earlier this year (the end of buyer paralysis after the end of last year) led a few builders to get their plans set for more.”

But analyst Ivy Zelman gave me a huge nugget: 50 percent of sales in May were on spec. She says we’re seeing a lot of spec homes now because, “today’s consumer wants to touch and feel the house.” The positives are that cancellations are down, sales are better and there’s less negative pricing, although discounts are still prevalent. “The patient was without a pulse in the fourth quarter,” Zelman notes, “and now the patient’s in ICU.”

Housing Starts Data Analysis
Month to month, total housing starts are up 17 percent, with multifamily up 61.7 percent, but that's after falling 49 percent in April. CNBC's Diana Olick interprets the data.

So why all the spec now? Because builders are trying to jam all these homes into buyers’ pockets before the expiration of the $8000 first time home buyer tax credit. It turns into a pumpkin November 30th.

The big wrench in that tactic is mortgage rates. Zelman claims, “the market collapsed last week.” Yes, it’s now summer, but she says that in Northern California, Las Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, the numbers went back to fourth quarter lows. The spring offered incredible affordability, but the rise in interest rates and the impending end of the tax credit could choke that off in summer.

And then there is the foreclosure issue.

I’m not trying to be a bear here, just a pragmatist. The government and industry programs to ease foreclosures are not showing big successes. A lot of Alt-A borrowers are in big trouble and many won’t qualify for any of the bailout programs. With interest rates in the mid 5’s, refinancing isn’t going to do much of anything for many borrowers. There is no sign of abatement in delinquencies, and while investors are in there, using old-fashioned cash to eat up inventories of distressed properties, there are plenty more foreclosures in the pipeline just waiting to hit the market.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.com

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  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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