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Housing Starts vs Residential Construction Spending


Housing Starts (# of units started as reported by U.S. Census) can be erratic from month to month and short term changes in growth can sometimes be misleading. Trends should be looked at over longer term periods. New monthly starts on a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) basis for the last eight months through January 2017 have now averaged over 1,200,000. For the last four months starts have averaged 1,250,000. Permits have been following a similar pattern. Although starts versus permits varies considerably in some months, statistically they follow the same growth pattern. Growth in the number of new starts has been 5% to 25% per year due to erratic movement but in the longer term has averaged 18%/yr over six years since January 2011. We experienced an un-sustained start to recovery in 2010, but essentially we went through a protracted bottom between 500,000 and 600,000 new starts that lasted all throughout 2009-2010.


Dodge Data reports SAAR new residential construction starts by contract value in current dollars (not inflation adjusted). Unadjusted growth for the same six-year period increased from $120 billion SAAR to over $300 billion SAAR, or at an annual rate of over 25%/year. However, there was 25% residential cost inflation during that period. In constant 2016$, Dodge new residential starts growth averages 20%/year for six years since January 2011.


Now let’s look at construction spending, actual dollar value of work put-in-place. Here’s where the data has a disconnect.

At the start of 2011, total residential spending  had a monthly SAAR of $240 billion and at the end of 2016 was $470 billion, an increase of 16%/year for 6 years. To find real volume growth those values must be adjusted for inflation. After adjusting for inflation, the actual spending volume growth in 2016$ from 2011 through the end of 2016 increased from $305 billion to $465 billion, an increase of 52%, or an average increase of 9%/year for 6 years.


Furthermore, the number of residential construction jobs reported by BLS increased only 33% over that time, an average growth rate of less than 6%/year.


What could explain these differences?

The low rate of jobs growth compared to spending growth is partially explained by the fact that in the preceding few years, even though about 1.5 million jobs were lost, 40% of the workforce, staff was not reduced nearly at the same rate that residential construction volume declined (55%). There remained significantly more staff on payrolls than was needed to complete the amount of volume that was being built during the residential recession. When growth resumed, spending increased at a much faster rate than new jobs were added and the excess labor slack was reduced. I suspect also that a portion of the labor vs spending difference is explained by the fact that not all jobs are captured by BLS. It has been suggested that a large percentage of residential workforce in some southwestern states is undocumented.

The variance between starts and spending is a bit more complicated. We need to look at completions vs starts, the mix and size of housing units being built and the amount of spending related to renovations.

The most commonly reported housing statistic is housing starts. Also in that data series is housing completions. Housing completions are always lower than starts. For the last five years completions have averaged almost 15% less than starts. While the growth in starts averaged 18%/year, growth in completions from 2011 through 2016 averages less than 15%/year. 

From 2011 to 2016 the average number of new single family (SF) units started increased from about 450,000 to 800,000. During that same period multi-family (MF) starts increased from 100,000 to 440,000. The percentage of MF units in total construction grew from 18% to 36% of total.

On average MF units are about half the size of SF units. Although the average size of SF homes increased about 10% during this period, the growth in the number of smaller MF units exceeded that of larger MF units by a factor of 2x. The ratio of smaller MF units doubled.

The share of MF units as a percent of all units doubled and the ratio of smaller vs larger MF units doubled. The total square feet of housing being built increased but did not grow at the same rate as the number of units. The average size of all units is getting smaller and therefore the constant cost per unit went down.

I suspect the increased ratio of smaller MF units and the percent increase of MF within the total number of all housing units has a big influence on the overall average cost per unit of total housing. That with the lower growth rate in completions helps explain why spending is not increasing at the same rate as overall number of housing unit starts. We are building more units per dollar spending because average unit size is smaller.

There is one more hidden factor to look at. That is, residential construction spending includes renovations. From 2009 through 2012 renovations totaled 45% of all residential spending. It began to decrease in 2013. For the last three years, renovation spending accounts for only 33% of all residential construction spending.  Renovation spending has no comparable # of units or total square feet associated with it.


The impact this has, since the share of renovations spending is declining, is to increase the percent growth in residential spending attributable to housing units to greater than the 9% calculated above. Removing renovations work from total spending shows growth in real inflation adjusted spending specific to housing units averaged about 13%/year for 6 years.

Summarizing everything from above, since 2011:

On the surface it looks like this:

  • Housing Starts # of units increased at 18%/year
  • Residential new starts in unadjusted dollars increased 20%/year
  • Residential construction spending increased 16%/year

After adjusting both units and spending we get:

  • Inflation adjusted total residential spending increased 9%/year
  • Inflation adjusted spending on units (excluding renovations) increased 13%/year
  • Growth in the # of housing units completed increased 15%/year
  • Share of Multifamily units has increased
  • Average size of multifamily units has decreased
  • Average size of all housing units being completed has grown smaller
  • The growth in the number of units completed can exceed the growth in spending because the average constant value cost per unit has decreased

The growth in the number of housing unit starts is NOT an indicator to use for forecasting growth in residential construction spending or constant volume. Increases in the number of units alone will not give a realistic indication of growth in residential jobs or spending. The rate of growth in completions, combined with the ratio of the sizes of units, not just size of SF homes but average size of all SF and MF units, has a significant influence on the spending volume and can only be compared to inflation adjusted spending specific to units, that is, total spending minus renovations.

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