Real Estate

Homebuilder sentiment jumps to record high, but soaring lumber prices could 'dampen momentum'

Key Points
  • Builder confidence in the newly built, single-family home market jumped 6 points to 78 in August on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index.
  • Anything above 50 is considered positive sentiment.
  • The cost of lumber is soaring not only because of increased demand but because mills shut down in April and May and did not expect to see the kind of strong demand they're seeing now.
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Homebuilder sentiment jumps to record high

Potential buyers flooded into model homes across the nation, and that has builders feeling better about their business than at any time over the past 20 years.

But rising lumber prices could sap the market's momentum this fall.

Builder confidence in the newly built, single-family home market jumped 6 points to 78 in August on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index. Anything above 50 is considered positive sentiment.

The index is now at the highest level in the 35-year history of the monthly series and matches the record set in December 1998. Builder sentiment plunged to 30 in April, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the U.S. economy, but it recovered quickly as consumers suddenly sought more space in less urban areas.

"The demand for new single-family homes continues to be strong, as low interest rates and a focus on the importance of housing has stoked buyer traffic to all-time highs as measured on the HMI," said NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke. "However, the V-shaped recovery for housing has produced a staggering increase for lumber prices, which have more than doubled since mid-April. Such cost increases could dampen momentum in the housing market this fall, despite historically low interest rates."

The cost of lumber is soaring not only because of increased demand but because mills shut down in April and May and did not expect to see the kind of strong demand they're seeing now. There have also been issues with transportation and labor.

Of the index's three components, current sales conditions rose 6 points to 84. Sales expectations in the next six months increased 3 points to 78, and buyer traffic jumped 8 points to 65, its highest level in the history of the survey.

Builders are clearly benefiting from the severe shortage of existing homes for sale. There were too few homes to meet demand even before the pandemic struck, and now fewer homeowners are willing to list their homes for sale.

Mortgage rates dropped to a record low to start August but pushed higher last week, as Treasury yields rose and mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac increased fees to lenders. Unless rates really break much higher, which is unlikely, the latest increase is unlikely to throw much cold water on the strong demand for housing.

"Housing has clearly been a bright spot during the pandemic and the sharp rebound in builder confidence over the summer has led NAHB to upgrade its forecast for single-family starts, which are now projected to show only a slight decline for 2020," said NAHB chief economist Robert Dietz. "Single-family construction is benefiting from low interest rates and a noticeable suburban shift in housing demand to suburbs, exurbs and rural markets as renters and buyers seek out more affordable, lower density markets."

Regionally, on a three-month moving, builder sentiment in the Northeast jumped 20 points to 65, in the Midwest it rose 13 points to 63. In the South sentiment increased 12 points to 71 and in the West it rose 15 points to 78.