The home-construction boom sputtered out in April as prices surged higher

Home construction
A red-hot real-estate market has kickstarted new home construction, but builders face a shortage of lumber.

  • US housing starts fell 9.5% in April, erasing much of the March surge that looked likely to provide much-needed supply.
  • The lack of adequate inventory has driven up home prices in recent months as demand remains red hot.
  • Soaring lumber prices and supply bottlenecks likely weighed on construction, one economist said.
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Potential buyers will need to wait a little while longer for the housing market to cool off.

US housing starts slid 9.5% in April to an annualized rate of 1.57 million units, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. That’s well below the median estimate of a 1.7 million pace from economists surveyed by Bloomberg. March’s huge upswing was revised slightly lower to a rate of 1.73 million.

The reading erases much of the sharp improvement seen through March and suggests contractors’ efforts to shore up supply are hitting snags. Lumber prices skyrocketed through April as shortages slammed the construction sector. While the housing market remains robust, the Tuesday report signals inventory pressures won’t be alleviated so easily.

“Strong demand, a need for inventory, and homebuilder optimism will support housing starts over the rest of 2021, while record-high lumber prices and supply chain bottlenecks may act as headwinds,” Nancy Vanden Houten, lead US economist at Oxford Economics, said in a note. The firm expects starts to average 1.6 million through the year, which would mark the fastest pace of home construction since 2006.

In more encouraging data, building permits rose 0.3% through April. Permits are more forward-looking than starts, suggesting contractors expect to ramp up construction through the year. There’s also a growing backlog of permitted homes that haven’t been started yet. The recent decline in lumber prices and easing of some supply bottlenecks could pull forward that construction, Vanden Houten said.

Housing starts will be the indicator to watch as the red-hot market charges into the summer. Sales of existing and previously owned homes, while still elevated, have dropped off in recent months as massive demand runs up against a nationwide supply shortage.

That imbalance has driven prices higher throughout the year. Home-price inflation hit a record-high 12.2% in February, the Federal Housing Finance Agency said on April 27. The lingering shortage and lack of an immediate supply boost likely kept price growth strong in March and April.

The shortage and months-long price surge led some to worry that the market is repeating the boom-and-bust cycle of the late 2000s. Experts told Insider last month that, while prices will likely climb further, the current rally has more to do with a lack of inventory than the risky lending that fueled the 2008 crash.

The Federal Reserve backed the outlook following its April policy meeting. The central bank is “carefully” monitoring the housing market but doesn’t see the “kind of financial stability concerns” that emerged in the late 2000s, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in an April 28 press conference.

“My hope would be that over time, housing builders can react to this demand and come up with more supply, and workers will come back to work in that industry,” he added.

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