Inflation is forcing some home builders to take it slow and raise prices

A contractor adjusts a floor joist while working on a home under construction in Elgin, Ill. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Even in the hottest US housing market in more than a decade, new home construction has turned into a frustratingly uncertain and costly proposition for many home builders.

Rising costs and shortages of building materials and labor are rippling across the home building industry, which accounted for nearly 12 percent of all US home sales in July. Construction delays are common, prompting many builders to pump the brakes on the number of new homes they put up for sale. As building a new home gets more expensive, some of those costs are passed along to buyers.

Across the economy, prices have spiked this year amid shortages of manufactured goods and components, from cars and computer chips to paint and building materials. The Federal Reserve meets this week and officials’ outlook on when they might start raising interest rates could indicate how worried the Fed is about inflation.

The constraints on home builders are unwelcome news for home buyers, who are already facing historically low levels of resale homes on the market and record prices. Economists worry many first-time buyers are getting priced out of the market. The erosion in affordability is one reason the pace of home sales has been easing in recent months.

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At Sivage Homes in Albuquerque, N.M., the builder’s efforts to keep its construction on schedule are undercut almost daily by delays for everything from plumbing fixtures and windows to bathtubs and appliances.

“Nowadays, we literally could be sitting waiting 30 days, maybe even 60, for one thing or another,” said Mike Sivage, CEO. “I’ve been doing this since 1986. and I have to say I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

The pandemic set the stage for higher prices and shortages of construction products. Factories went idle temporarily and are now trying to catch up on production at the same time that demand has intensified due to an unexpectedly hot housing market and a surge in home remodeling.

Lumber futures jumped to an all-time high $1,670 per thousand board feet in May. They’ve since dropped to $634, about 10 percent higher than a year ago. Still, wholesale prices for a category of home building components that includes windows, roofing tiles, doors, and steel, increased 22 percent over the past 12 months, according to an analysis of Labor Department data conducted by the National Association of Home Builders. Before 2020, it was typical for such aggregate prices to rise a little more than 1 percent annually.

Any savings on lumber have yet to filter down to many builders, including Thomas James Homes, which operates in California, Washington state, and Colorado.

“The price we’re paying for lumber today is the same price we were paying 90 or 120 days ago,” said Jon Tattersall, the builder’s president, who noted his company’s overall building costs have increased about 30 percent since November.

Home buyers shouldn’t expect to see any discounts from falling lumber prices, either, because builders set their prices based largely on overall demand in the housing market. A signed contract for a home yet to be built typically includes an allowance for unexpected construction costs, but builders usually have to eat big increases and then pass them on to the next buyer.
“On our future ones, those are the ones we’re having to raise the costs on,” Tattersall said.

Higher building materials prices aren’t the only factor driving up builders’ costs. A chronic shortage of skilled construction workers has worsened during the pandemic, forcing builders to factor in higher labor costs.

Inflation is being felt across the economy. Consumer prices rose 5.3 percent in August from the same month a year ago. At the producer level, inflation jumped an even steeper 8.3 percent, the biggest annual gain on record.

The Federal Reserve has said it believes the surge in inflation will be temporary. For now, though, the rise in building materials costs and the lingering supply crunch are making everything from houses and apartments to commercial buildings more expensive.

To manage, many builders are slowing the rollout of new homes. Zonda Economics, a real estate data tracker, estimates some 85 percent of builders are intentionally limiting their sales.

Even with inflation, builders are benefiting from the hottest housing market in years. Demand for new homes has strengthened, while the number of existing US homes up for sale has fallen to historic lows, pushing prices higher.

The median price of a new home sold in July climbed 18.4 percent from a year earlier to $390,500, a high, according to the Commerce Department. For existing homes, the median price jumped 17.8 percent in July to $359,900, according to the National Association of Realtors.

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