WASHINGTON – U.S. developers broke ground on more homes last month, but the increase occurred entirely in apartments. The construction of new single-family houses fell.
The Commerce Department said Tuesday that housing starts rose 3.2 percent in November from the previous month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate 1.26 million. Despite the increase, that is down 3.6 percent from a year ago. Single-family starts dropped 4.6 percent in November and are down 13.1 percent from a year earlier.
Some of the data likely have been distorted by extreme weather. Home-building jumped 15.1 percent last month in the South in the aftermath of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. And home construction fell 14.2 percent in the West, possibly because of wildfires in California. Single-family homebuilding fell in the West by the most since February 2009.
Still, rising mortgage rates have dragged down home sales in the past year, discouraging many builders and causing a slump in the overall housing market. Sales of new and existing homes are dropping and home price gains are slowing.
The unemployment rate is at a five-decade low and incomes are rising more quickly, but many would-be buyers struggle to find homes they can afford. Developers say that rising labor and materials costs make it harder for them to build more affordable properties.
"Rising home prices and mortgage rates have created high hurdles for homebuyers, while cost increases have made it difficult for builders to deliver homes at the most in-demand price points," said Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com.
Sales of new homes plummeted nearly 9 percent in October and the number of newly built, unsold homes sitting on the market has climbed to its highest level since 2009.
And an index of home builders' confidence has fallen sharply over the last two months. On Monday, the National Association of Home Builders said the index dropped last month to its lowest level in 3 ½ years.
Mortgage rates shot up to nearly 5 percent in early November, the highest level in seven years. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage has fallen back since then and hit 4.6 percent last week. Still, that is up from an average of 3.9 percent a year earlier.
The construction of apartment buildings has soared in the past year, rising 20 percent nationwide. That could help keep rents in check.
But single-family home building creates more jobs and economic activity and is closely watched by economists. Their construction requires more labor and yields more purchases of furniture and appliances. Single- family home building plunged 13.1 percent in November from a year earlier.
Building permits for single-family homes ticked up 0.1 percent last month, suggesting that construction of those homes will level off in the coming months. Overall permits rose 5 percent last month and 0.4 percent from a year ago.