Picture: 123RF/Darryl Brooks
Picture: 123RF/Darryl Brooks

Washington  — US homebuilding fell for a second straight month in June and permits dropped to a two-year low, suggesting the housing market continued to struggle despite declining mortgage rates.

The report from the commerce department on Wednesday also showed housing completions at a six-month low and a modest increase in the number of homes under construction, indicating that an inventory squeeze that has haunted the market could persist for a while. Weak housing and manufacturing are holding back the economy, offsetting strong consumer spending.

Housing starts decreased 0.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.253-million units in June as a rebound in the construction of single-family housing units was overshadowed by a plunge in multifamily homebuilding, the department said.

Data for May was revised slightly down to show homebuilding falling to a pace of 1.265-million units, instead of slipping to a rate of 1.269-million units as previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts dipping to a pace of 1.261-million units in June.

Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, increased 3.5% to a rate of 847,000 units in June, partially recouping some of May's sharp drop. Single-family housing starts fell in the Northeast, but rose in the Midwest, West and South.

Building permits tumbled 6.1% to a rate of 1.220-million units in June, the lowest level since May 2017. Permits have been weak this year, with much of the decline concentrated in the single-family housing segment.

The dollar was weaker against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury yields fell to a session low. US stock index futures were little changed.

Housing soft patch 

The housing market hit a soft patch in 2018 and has been a drag on economic growth for five straight quarters. It likely subtracted from gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP rising at a 1.6% annualised rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the first quarter. The government will publish its advance GDP growth estimate for the second quarter next Friday.

The sector is being hamstrung by land and labour shortages, which are making it difficult for builders to fully take advantage of lower borrowing costs and construct more affordable housing units. As a result, the housing market continues to struggle with tight inventory, leading to sluggish sales growth.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate has dropped to about 3.75% from a peak of 4.94% in November, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. Further declines are likely as the Federal Reserve has signaled it would cut interest rates this month for the first time in a decade.

A survey on Tuesday showed confidence among homebuilders increased in July. Builders, however, complained "they continue to grapple with labor shortages, a dearth of buildable lots and rising construction costs that are making it increasingly challenging to build homes at affordable price points relative to buyer incomes".

Permits to build single-family homes rose 0.4% to a rate of 813,000 units in June. Despite the increase in June, permits continue to lag behind housing starts, which suggests single-family homebuilding could remain sluggish.

Starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment dropped 9.2% to a rate of 406,000 units in June. Permits for the construction of multi-family homes plunged 16.8% to a pace of 407,000 units. Permits for buildings with five units or more were the lowest since March 2016.

Housing completions fell 4.8% to 1.161-million units in June, the lowest level since December. Realtors estimate that housing starts and completion rates need to be in a range of 1.5-million to 1.6-million units per month to bridge the inventory gap. The stock of housing under construction increased 0.5% to 1.135-million units.