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Homebuilder confidence in US increases slightly for March

WASHINGTON -- Confidence among U.S. homebuilders rose slightly in March, a sign the industry may take time to pick up after inclement weather damped activity earlier in the year.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of builder confidence climbed to 47 from 46 in February, a report from the Washington-based group showed Monday.

Readings below 50 mean more survey respondents reported poor market conditions than good.

This month’s reading follows a drop in February that was the biggest on record amid snowstorms that restrained prospective buyers from going out to shop for homes and kept builders from starting work.

Recent gains in borrowing costs and higher property values also are limiting affordability, while an improving job market will help to underpin demand.

“Builders continued to be affected by poor weather and difficulties in finding lots and labor,” NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a homebuilder and developer from Wilmington, Del., said.

The index, which was first published in January 1985, reached a record low of 8 in January 2009.

The builders group’s index of present sales of single-family homes increased to 52 this month from 51 in February.

A measure of sales expectations for the next six months declined to 53 from 54. The gauge of buyer traffic rose to 33 from 31.

The confidence survey asks builders to characterize current sales as “good,” “fair” or “poor” and to gauge prospective buyers’ traffic. It also asks participants to gauge the outlook for the next six months.

“A number of factors are raising builder concerns over meeting demand for the spring buying season,” David Crowe, the NAHB’s chief economist, said.

“These include a shortage of buildable lots and skilled workers, rising materials prices and an extremely low inventory of new homes for sale.”

Regional split

Confidence among builders declined in two of the four U.S. regions, as the Northeast and West dropped 5 points and improved in the Midwest and South.

Snowfall and frigid temperatures in the eastern United States has hurt everything from housing to retail sales.

Home starts slumped in January by the most in almost three years as unusually harsh winter weather added to the industry’s burdens.

Resales of previously owned homes dropped in January to the lowest level in more than a year as poor weather combined with a lack of supply and strict lending rules, according the the National
Association of Realtors.

Beyond the weather, borrowing costs for homebuyers have been climbing.

The average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage rate was 4.37 percent in the week ended March 13, up from 3.63 percent a year earlier, according to Freddie Mac in McLean, Va.

Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., (NYSE: HOV) New Jersey’s largest homebuilder, reported a wider loss for its fiscal first quarter as inclement weather extended construction times and sales demand slowed.

“We believe this is a temporary pause in the industry’s recovery,” Chief Executive Officer Ara Hovnanian said on March 5.

“Based on the level of housing starts across the country, we continue to believe the homebuilding industry is still in the early stages of recovery.”

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