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articles about “Household Formation

All Those Vacant Homes

The latest Census data show that the vacancy rate remains elevated, and an unusually high share of vacant homes are being held off the market. This vacancy overhang is holding back construction activity.

Jed Kolko, Chief Economist
November 6, 2013

The 2013 Q3 Census Homeownership and Vacancy survey shows that the vacancy rate is still above its pre-bubble level and remains unchanged from one year earlier. This might come as a surprise to house hunters, who have struggled with limited inventory when trying to find a home to buy or rent, but an unusually high share of vacant homes today is being held off the market. The elevated vacancy rate discourages new construction activity and is therefore one of the major hurdles to a full housing recovery.

To understand why vacancies are still widespread and what impact they have, we dug deeper into the Census data as well as other data sources that report vacancies at the metro level. Here’s what we found.

Nationally, Vacancy Rate Still Above Pre-Bubble Level
In the third quarter of 2013, 10.2% of housing units were vacant, excluding vacant homes that the Census classifies as “seasonal,” such as beach homes. Vacant homes include those for sale or for rent, as well as homes “held off market” for various reasons. This vacancy rate of 10.2% – the share of homes that are empty – was unchanged from 2012 Q3 and well above the pre-bubble level. In fact, the vacancy rate today (10.2%) is closer to its peak during the recession (11.0% in Q3 2010) than before the bubble (8.8% in Q3 2000).

But wait – aren’t homes hard to find? Buyers (and renters, too) have had little to choose from because the listed inventory is low. The share of the overall housing stock that is listed for sale, based on National Association of Realtors (NAR) and Census data, rose slightly in 2013 Q3 compared to last year but is lower than at any other point during or after the bubble. In other words, the for-sale inventory is back down to its 2000 level, and tight inventory has helped fuel sharp price increases across the country over the past two years. That means there’s an inventory shortage, but not a housing shortage:

Trulia_InventoryShortage_Chart

How can the for-sale inventory be relatively low while the vacancy rate is high? Because the share of vacant homes being held off the market – that is, neither for sale nor for rent – is rising. In 2013 Q3, 53.5% of vacant homes were held off market, up slightly from 52.9% in 2012 Q3 and from a low of 45% at the height of the housing bubble in 2006.

Trulia_Percentage Vacant Homes_Chart

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Sorry, Mom and Dad: The Kids Aren’t Moving Out Yet

Household formation is the most important measure of the housing recovery that hasn’t bounced back yet. The latest population data show that young adults are still living with their parents – even if they have jobs.

During the recession, fewer households – one or more people living under the same roof – were created than normal. Typically, 1.1 million new households are added each year in the U.S., mostly due to population growth. However, from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2011, only 450,000 new households were created annually. Slower household growth means less demand for homes, so annual construction starts dropped during this period from a norm of 1.4 million to below 600,000. Most recently, only 521,000 households were created between the first quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.

A big part of the slowdown in household formation was due to young people living with parents or doubling up with roommates rather than setting up house on their own. Since most kids won’t live with their parents forever, these young adults represent “pent-up demand” for housing that the recovery should unleash. Problem is: the kids aren’t moving out yet.

More Than Two Million Missing Households
While other measures of the housing recovery are chugging along – like foreclosures, prices, sales, and construction – household formation is lagging. Thanks to years of below-normal household formation, the number of “missing households” has accumulated. Our early analysis of the 2013 Current Population Survey data (see note below) shows that there are still 2.4 million missing households, stubbornly close to the high of 2.6 million in 2010 and 2011. That’s equivalent to more than two years of normal household formation that have gone missing:

Year

# of “missing” households, millions

2008

0.9

2009

1.8

2010

2.6

2011

2.6

2012

2.3

2013

2.4

Note: estimate takes into account changes in the age distribution of the population. See note at end of post.

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