The Housing Chronicles Blog: A Look Ahead to 2018: All systems go, but tax reform impact unknown

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Look Ahead to 2018: All systems go, but tax reform impact unknown

In 2017, we saw an economy and a housing market gaining momentum, for one of the longest rebounds in modern history. For 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is projecting global growth of 3.7 percent, for a slight improvement over 3.6 percent in 2017.

Here in America – and due to a second half of 2017 that was much stronger than the first – the Federal Reserve is projecting the U.S. economy to grow by 2.5 percent in 2018 after finishing 2017 with the same growth rate.

For housing, although tax reform is likely to negatively impact the housing market in both high-priced and second-home markets moving forward, both the overall U.S. economy and new home sales are expected to continue strengthening in the year head.  To combat future inflation, the Federal Reserve is planning on three more rate hikes in 2018, and has stated that it sees some moderate additional growth of about 0.4 percentage points in GDP resulting from tax reform.

However, what may be good for housing demand in terms of low unemployment has also meant tighter labor market conditions, especially for skilled construction trades.  As of October 2017, open jobs in the building industry rose to nearly 230,000, likely setting the stage for higher wage growth ahead.

In addition, the cost of building materials continues to rise, especially for wood products and for Canadian lumber subject to a 21 percent excise tax.

Although an analysis funded by the National Association of Realtors has suggested that tax reform could lower housing prices throughout the country, a larger problem may be that it could discourage existing homeowners from selling to take on pricier non-grandfathered mortgages, or even stay in place for five rather than two years to save on capital gains taxes.  In both of these scenarios, the pace of sales could slow at a time when more supply is needed.

Of course one question mark will be the mindset of Millennials, some of whom are now at that age where they’re starting to form new households, and even leaving urban areas in search of more affordable options in the suburbs.

According to NAR’s 2017 Profile of Buyers and Sellers, the share of sales to first-time buyers averaged 34 percent during the year, down one percentage point of 35 percent.  Still, given that the share of first-time buyers since 1981 has averaged 39 percent, builders have a unique opportunity to fill in the gap by focusing more on the Milllennial cohort.

One way builders are responding to Millennial demand includes building smaller single-family homes, with the median size falling by nearly four percent to 2378 square feet between the third quarters of 2014 and 2017. For multi-family homes, median home sizes fell by 1.5 percent during the same time period to 1168 square feet.

Even with these changes, however, the industry is still catching up from the Great Recession in many areas.  According to the National Association of Home Builders/First American Leading Markets Index (LMI) for the third quarter of 2017, markets in just 58 percent of the 337 metro areas nationwide returned to or exceeded their last normal levels of economic and housing activity, for a net gain of about 40 markets over the previous year.  Nationally, the index stood at 1.03, meaning that the nationwide average is running at 103% of normal economic and housing activity.

Nonetheless, the individual components of the LMI have not recovered equally: While employment has reached 99 percent of normal activity and home prices have rebounded to 155 percent of normal, single-family permits are running at just 56 percent of historic norms.

In order to address this disconnect between supply and demand, the Rosen Consulting Group recently conducted its own study for the NAR.  In its recent white paper “Rebuildingthe American Dream: Strategies to Sustainably Increase Homeownership,” Rosen’s team identifies 25 ideas to bolster homeownership.

While some suggestions are repeats of past ideas – such as addressing restrictive zoning laws, offering down payment savings programs, tackling the burden of student debt, and a nationwide counseling program for homeowners who previously experienced foreclosure and may be hesitant to consider buying a home again – others are more focused on emerging technologies in the industry or even re-thinking land use strategies.  These include promoting more pre-fabricated or modular housing, boosting training and apprenticeship programs, and more liberal use of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), such as granny flats, on single-family lots in high-cost areas.

With new supply seemingly under assault from multiple causes, multiple solutions will likely be required.

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