WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. homebuilding fell in May, but groundbreaking activity in the prior two months was stronger than previously thought, pointing to some tentative signs of improvement in the struggling housing market.
Land and labor shortages are, however, making it difficult for builders, especially in the single-family housing segment, to fully take advantage of a sharp decline in mortgage rates. That has left the housing market continuing to grapple with tight inventory and sluggish sales growth.
The report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday came as Federal Reserve officials started a two-day policy meeting.
Low inflation, a slowing economy and an escalation in the trade war between Washington and Beijing have led financial markets to fully price in an interest rate cut this year, pulling down mortgage rates. The U.S. central bank is, however, not expected to cut rates on Wednesday.
“Housing continues to wander along, not doing much better but not weakening a whole lot,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.
Housing starts dropped 0.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.269 million units last month amid a drop in the construction of single-family housing units, the government said. Data for April was revised up to show homebuilding rising to a pace of 1.281 million units, instead of increasing to a rate of 1.235 million units as previously reported. Housing starts in March were also stronger than initially estimated.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts edging up to a pace of 1.239 million units in May.
Single-family homebuilding, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, dropped 6.4% to a rate of 820,000 units in May. Single-family housing starts fell in the Northeast, the Midwest and West, but rose in the South, where the bulk of homebuilding occurs.
Some on the weakness in groundbreaking activity likely reflects heavy rain and flooding in some parts of the country.
The housing market hit a soft patch last year and has been a drag on economic growth for five straight quarters.
The PHLX housing index was trading higher, in line with a broadly firmer U.S. stock market. The dollar rose slightly against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury yields fell.
Despite the recent signs of improvement in housing starts, there are concerns that renewed trade tensions between the United States and China could hurt future home building.
A survey on Monday showed confidence among homebuilders ebbed in June, with builders continuing “to report rising development and construction costs, with some additional concerns over trade issues.”
Builders said that despite lower mortgage rates, “home prices remain somewhat high relative to incomes, which is particularly challenging for entry-level buyers.”
The 30-year fixed mortgage rate has decreased to 3.82% from a peak of about 4.94% in November, according to data from mortgage finance agency Freddie Mac. According to the latest data, house prices rose 3.7% in March from a year ago, outpacing wages, which increased 3.1% in May.
Building permits rose 0.3% to a rate of 1.294 million units in May. It was the second straight monthly increase in permits. Building permits have been weak this year, with much of the decline concentrated in the single-family housing segment.
Permits to build single-family homes increased 3.7% to a rate of 815,000 units in May, after five straight monthly declines. Permits were boosted by a 7.7% jump in the South, the largest gain since December 2016. But single-family housing permits fell in the Northeast, West and Midwest.
“The gain in permits along with more favorable buying conditions points to gradually improving activity over the summer,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “That said, lower mortgages rates will not likely be rocket fuel for residential construction, and a surge in activity is unlikely.”
Starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment surged 10.9% to a rate of 449,000 units last month. Permits for the construction of multi-family homes dropped 5.0% to a pace of 479,000 units.
Housing completions fell 9.5% to 1.213 million last month. 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 plug the inventory gap. The stock of housing under construction was little changed at 1.131 million units.
“If you were waiting for more construction to deal with the nation’s growing housing shortage, you are going to have a longer wait,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.
Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci