Market Commentary Blog:construction

Construction of new multifamily housing increased to a 381,000 unit seasonally adjusted annual rate in January, as robust demand for rental housing and record prices of apartment buildings provide strong incentives to build new supply. Multifamily housing starts are running nearly four times the average pace during 2009 and 2010, prompting some fears of overbuilding. A peek a bit further back in time, however, casts the recent trends in a bit different perspective. 

Construction spending fell nearly 60 bps to a seasonally adjusted $966.6 billion in March, its lowest level in six months. Following a flat reading in February, growth in construction spending slowed to a 2% annual rate in March.

Builders took advantage of spring weather and broke ground on 389,000 (annualized) multifamily units in April, a 32% increase from March. After a long and snowy winter season kept many new projects on hold, the strong uptrend in construction from the past several years appears to be underway again.

New construction of multifamily housing units slowed a bit in May from April’s torrid pace, yet remained on a rising trend. Multifamily housing starts were at an annualized rate of 349,000 units, down 18.5% from April but still well above the 300,000 unit trend that had been in place for the decade or so prior to the Great Recession. 

We often get questions about where we are in the cycle. REITs and real estate are tied closely to the macro economy’s turns through expansion and recession. While the crystal ball is never very clear about the medium-term outlook, we can make several statements about recession risks. 

Apartment markets remain tight across the country. Vacancy rates ticked up 10 bps, from continued new construction as well as some slowing in absorption, but are still at rock-bottom levels. Rent growth accelerated to a 6% annual rate, as vacancy rates in the low 4’s indicate little or no slack in the market, giving landlords a strong position to increase rents.

Many analysts have noted that increasing construction and high prices on commercial properties often presage a downturn in the sector, and have asked whether this cycle may be approaching the 9th inning. NAREIT research economists have examined data from several sources to shed further light on the risks that the sector may be approaching a correction.

The biggest question for the apartment sector lately has been whether the bulging pipeline of new supply would swamp the pent-up demand that accumulated during the Great Recession. Indeed, rental demand flagged during the winter as construction reached new highs, feeding worries about the outlook.

REITs and other owners of commercial properties are likely to benefit from a favorable balance of supply and demand in the months ahead.