Single family residential (SFR) starts were 5% above one year earlier in the six-month phase ending December 2019. Multi-family construction starts were up 16% from a year earlier. 

However, multi-family construction experienced a 6% decrease in 2019 from the prior year. Demand for multi-family rentals has generally been higher during this residential construction recovery compared to new SFRs. However, buyer-occupant demand for SFRs is gradually increasing as jobs are recovered.

SFR construction starts also saw annual totals lower than the previous year, turning in a 5% decrease from 2018.  SFR construction is expected to continue to slow in 2020, the result of 2018’s rising mortgage rates and 2019’s slowing sales volume and home prices. Further, compared to the 150,000 SFR starts achieved in 2005 at the height of the boom, even 2018’s positive performance – resulting in 62,600 SFR starts – is a fraction of what is needed to meet demand.

Like SFR construction, multi-family starts amount to just a small amount of what is needed to keep up with rising demand from California’s growing population. State-initiated legislative efforts to add to the low- and mid-tier housing stock have focused on encouraging more multi-family construction. Therefore, the slowing in multi-family construction will not be as steep as that experienced for SFR starts,  even as home sales slow across California.

Updated February 19, 2020. Original copy posted November 2012.

Chart 1

This chart illustrates the number of California residential construction starts during semi-annual phases ending in December and June.

Chart update 02/19/20

 Six-month period ending Dec 2019 Dec 2018 Annual change
SFR Starts 30,100 28,800 +4.6%
Multi-family Starts 27,900 24,100
+15.6%

Chart 2

Chart update 02/19/20

  2019 2018 2017 2005 peak
SFR Starts
59,200
62,600
58,000
154,700
Multi-family Starts
50,700
53,800
53,800
50,300

*Forecasts are made by first tuesday and are based on current new home sale trends, actual construction starts and current government policies.

Detached single family residential construction trends in California:

  • 30,100 SFR starts took place in the six-month period ending December 2019. This is 1,300 more starts than occurred during the same period one year earlier.
  • 59,200 SFR starts took place in 2019. This is down 5%, or 3,400 starts, from 2018.
  • For perspective, this cycle’s peak year in SFR starts was 2005 with 155,000 starts. The lowest year was 2009 with 25,000 starts.
  • Final reports issued for new subdivisions by the California Bureau of Real Estate (CalBRE) have remained constant for several years, roughly level during the past 12 months.

Detached SFR forecast:

  • first tuesday‘s forecast for total SFR starts in 2020 is approximately 57,000. This is about 4% lower than 2019.
  • SFR starts will fall back in 2020, as builders adjust to slowing sales volume and decreased home prices, all the result of rising interest rates.
  • Subdivision final reports will continue to decline as developers until sense a return of home buyers is on the horizon.
  • The next peak in SFR starts will likely occur during the boomlet period of 2022-2023.

Multi-family housing construction trends:

  • 27,900 multi-family housing starts took place in the six-month period ending December 2019. This is 3,800 more starts than occurred during the same period one year earlier.
  • 50,700 multi-family housing starts took place in 2019. This was 6% lower than 2018.
  • For perspective, this cycle’s peak year in multi-family housing starts was 2004 with 61,500 starts. The lowest year was 2009 with 11,000 multi-family housing starts.

Multi-family housing forecast:

  • first tuesday‘s forecast for total multi-family housing starts in 2019 is approximately 56,500. This is a small 5% increase over 2018.
  • Multi-family housing starts are expected to rise at a gradual pace in 2020, as several legislative changes aimed at increasing multi-family construction encourage more building of dense, low- and mid-tier housing.
  • The next peak year for multi-family housing starts is likely to occur around 2022-2023, with the crest of the next housing boom.

Statistics related to California housing:

  • 7.0 million owner-occupied housing units existed in California in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This is a slight increase over the prior year.
  • California population growth is increasing at a rate of just below 1% per year, having bottomed at the height of the Millennium Boom and trending upward slightly since then.
  • 17.5 million people were employed in California in mid-2019. This is about 1.8 million jobs above the pre-recession peak month of December 2007, according to the California Employment Development Department (EDD), finally catching up with the 1.8 million increase in working-aged population since the end of 2007, reaching a fully recovery.
  • The trough month in employment was January 2010, with 13,686,400 people employed state-wide.
  • The rental vacancy rate at the end of 2018 was 4.4%.

Construction starts will continue to falter somewhat in 2019, not to rise significantly until the next recession has come and gone, expected in 2020. The pace of this rise is dependent on several factors, discussed below.

Related articles: Nobody’s home: California’ residential vacancy rates Golden state population trends

Key factors for builders

How do builders decide when and where to build? Builders analyze existing home sales, end user demand and local employment. Together, an analysis of these and ancillary factors produces a prediction of future construction trends.

End user demand drives sales

End user homebuyer-occupant demand will ultimately determine whether and how fast construction starts for SFRs and condos will continue to climb. Builders rely on buyer-occupants to support new home construction. Discouraged by low inventory,  high home prices and rising interest rates, buyer-occupant demand to purchase a home in 2018 remains stunted. This is demonstrated by relatively low sales volume participation and mortgage origination figures. Builders will continue to bide their time until sales volume figures for buyer-occupants pick up, likely in 2019 as prices begin to rise again.

When speculators interfere, home sales volume and pricing display a distorted picture of demand. However, builders need to look to jobs data and mortgage rates as the primary impetus for demand when they set the level of starts that will likely sell.

California has finally recovered all jobs lost in the Great Recession but at wages which do not cover the interim inflation. Still, considering the intervening population gain (around 3 million), full employment and labor force participation comparable to the December 2007 peak is not expected to be reached until later in 2019 or perhaps 2020.

Obstacles facing SFR builders

Obstacles of concern to future construction starts include:

  • rising mortgage rates — ARMs first, then FRMs — reducing homebuyer borrowing capacity;
  • tightened credit for homebuilders; and
  • restrictive zoning regulations, which discourage density in desirable living areas.

Until these factors are considered and a conclusion reached, builders (and their lenders) may not take for granted that construction starts will pay off. Expect starts to only modestly increase until these factors collectively improve, around 2022-2023.

Related article:

California Residential Vacancy Rates