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DataDigest: Where for-sale inventory went and when it’s coming back

New data details 2023's housing inventory shifts

It’s no secret that 2023 was a difficult year to buy a home. With mortgage rates briefly topping 8% and home prices breaking records throughout the year, many would-be sellers simply decided not to bother listing their homes, exacerbating already tight inventories.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau published last week shows how drastically housing inventory has changed since 2020, while weekly data from Altos Research offers some insights on where it goes from here.

Census Bureau data on housing inventory estimates details two cycles this decade – the onset of the pandemic and the rise of interest rates – that have been catastrophic for the nation’s for-sale housing inventory.

2020-2021: The shock to the system

The onset of the pandemic and government lockdowns sparked a frenzy for homes, especially those away from crowded downtowns and with ample space for home offices and homeschooling. Prospective homebuyers were armed with low interest rates, paused student loan payments and stimulus checks.

The number of owner-occupied homes skyrocketed, quickly depleting the number of vacant for-sale homes. Renters occupied fewer homes, and fewer vacant homes were reserved for them.

The number of homes “held off market” – second homes, vacation homes and others that are neither for-sale, for-rent or occupied – shrank. This could be because their owners snagged profits amid rapidly rising prices, because those who can afford second homes paused buying, or a combination of the two.

Seasonal housing, too, dropped considerably. This is likely due to the fact that seasonal housing – defined as homes intended for periodic occupancy such as for holiday resort guests or farm workers – could be profitably sold to meet soaring homebuyer demand and was not needed during the pandemic’s travel restrictions and weak travel demand.

Most of the trends begun in 2020 continued in 2021 except for renter-occupied homes, which rose above 2019 levels in the second half of the year. This was likely a reflection of the prolonged decline in vacant homes for sale, which made it difficult for would-be buyers to find a home to purchase.

Many of the same pandemic forces that set off the homebuying frenzy also fueled a frenetic pace of inflation. In 2022, the Federal Reserve began taking action to combat these market forces by raising interest rates, starting the second cycle of inventory changes.

2022-2023: The high-rate environment

Over two years, the Federal Reserve hiked rates 11 times for a total increase of 5.25 percentage points, the fastest pace of hikes in four decades. It has held rates at an effective rate of 5.33% in every meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Markets Committee since July 2023, including in their meeting last week.

Mortgage rates followed suit, walloping buyers’ purchasing power. The sudden run-up in rates discouraged would-be sellers from listing their homes, as they would be faced with much higher monthly payments for the same size home were they to sell and buy another home – if they even qualified for the same size home as they currently own.

This squeezed inventory even further throughout 2022 and 2023, pushing home prices to record highs month after month.

The high-rate environment further pushed owner occupancy up while pushing homes held off market, seasonal housing and homes vacant for sale down. That the number of owner-occupied homes rose throughout 2023 – an abysmal year for home sales – shows just how tightly recent homebuyers are holding onto their low rates.

High rates, combined with low for-sale inventories and high home prices, have also resulted in a surge in home renters. There were nearly 2 million more renter-occupied homes in the fourth quarter of 2023 than in the same quarter of 2019.

The environment has also prompted many homeowners to list their homes for rent rather than sale. The number of homes vacant for rent in the fourth quarter of 2023 was up 4% since the same quarter five years ago, while the number of homes vacant for sale was down 36%.

When inventory bounces back

The extremes of the 2020s have dealt big blows to for-sale inventories. First the 2020-2021 housing frenzy took a big bite out of existing inventories, then the 2022-2023 streak of rate hikes kept would-be sellers from replenishing those inventories.

The 2020s have also seen for-sale inventory siphoned from second homes, vacation homes and seasonal homes. Homebuilders, too, have added to for-sale inventory, pushing the total number of homes in the U.S. up 8.7% since the fourth quarter of 2018. But none of these valves have alleviated the shortage of for-sale homes or the resultant high home prices.

The majority of homes that would be up for sale are being held by owners with low mortgage rates who would rather stay put or rent than sell, a phenomenon known as the “mortgage rate lockdown.” Plus, boomers are aging in place for longer, further depleting available housing stock. In fact, the number of owner-occupied homes is at an all-time high, while the percentage of homes that are owner-occupied is well above pre-pandemic levels.

The only apparent change that could induce significant for-sale inventory back into the market, then, is lower mortgage rates. How quickly would sellers return if rates were lower? We got an early test in December and January when the FOMC forecasted rate cuts in 2024.

As rates began falling steeply from October through December and hovered around 6.6% in January, new listings increased on a year-to-year basis in 14 of 15 weeks, according to data from Altos Research, which, like HousingWire, is owned by HW Media.

The data is an encouraging sign that owners with homes to sell will be responsive to mortgage rates, suggesting rate cuts this year could bring about a rapid uptick in homes for sale.

Less encouraging, however, is how soon the market might see rate cuts. Mortgage rates rose above 7% this week for the first time in 2024 following a strong jobs report and comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell that suggested cuts were less imminent than many bond and equity traders had assumed.

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