A Closer Look at New Home Sales Data

Friday, October 27, 2006 | 06:49 AM

Yesterday's increase in New Home Sales caught some economists by surprise. I look at those sorts of numbers suspiciously.   

Sales_v_rate_1 Any time I want some insight into any particular datapoint, I find it instructive to go to the actual government source's website, and simply click around. If you do this with a skeptical eye, you may learn some really interesting facts.

That's what I did with the New Home Sales yesterday, simply looking at the release and trying to figure out what they were really saying thru the bureaucratic jargon and legalese. You don't need to be a forensic accountant (but it couldn't hurt).

Here's what I found:

1. The reported increase in sales was 5.3 percent. The margin of error was ±15.6%. Therefore, the likely change in sales ranged from +20.9% to -10.3%. Since this range contains zero, "the change is not statistically significant; that is, it is uncertain
whether there was an increase or decrease."

2. Recently reported increases have been subsequently revised downwards, primarily due to cancellations. Sales in June, July and August were revised down by 67,000.

3. Year-to-date sales are down 16.5%.

4. Commerce department does not do an "Apples-to-Apples" comparison. They report initial New Home Sales (pre-cancellations) versus the prior months adjusted (post-cancellations).  This has the effect of lowering the older months data, thereby making the present monthly gain appear larger.

A more consistent methodology might be to compare unrevised data with unrevised data.  So for September, we might look at sales of new one-family houses in August 2006 as initially reported -- annual rate of 1,050,000 (seasonally adjusted);  Then we look at sales of new one-family houses in September 2006 as initially reported: an annual rate of 1,075,000 -- just under 2.4%, as opposed to the reported 5.3%. Note this is still statistically insignificant, given the ±15.36% margin of error.   

Note that the year over year estimates -- down 14.2% percent (±12.2%) below the September 2005 puts zero beyond the margin of error. The range year over year is between down 2% to  down 26.4%.

Lastly, watch inventory. Rex Nutting points out that "The supply of inventory peaked at 7.2 months in July. Inventories of unsold homes are up 14.4% in the past year. The number of unsold completed homes rose to a record 157,000 in September, up 47% in the past year."


Median_price_new_home Lastly, a quick word on New Home Prices:  The reported sales prices were pretty awful. Again, we go to Rex Nutting: "Median sales prices dropped 9.7% in the past year to $217,100, the lowest price in two years. It's the largest percentage decline in median prices since December 1970. Median prices for existing single-family homes are down 2.5% in the past year, the largest decline ever recorded."

Here's the amusing part: Despite the huge price drop, the reported price changes actually understates the actual price changes. This is due to Builder Incentives. Have a look at some of the freebies builders have been using to get sales going: Sub zeros, pools, BMWs, even paying the property taxes for 2 years!

Candy bar companies don't like to raise prices, so they simply make the candy smaller, selling them for the same price; Curb Your Enthusiasm fans might note how many fewer Cashews go into a can of mixed nuts ("The whole cashew/raisin balance is askew!").

Builders do the opposite:  They add cashews for the same price. Some feel the psychology of lowering prices scares off potential buyers -- or at least frightens them into sitting back and waiting.  To avoid the appearance of decreasing prices (or to make them appear less severe), they offer more --  increasing what they are selling -- only without apparently charging for them.

This getting more for the same cost is price deflation -- just as paying the same amount for a smaller Almond Joy or less cashews is price inflation.   

New Home Pricing today – more cashews – is even more Deflationary than appears


New Residential Sales
US Census Bureau

OCTOBER 26, 2006 AT 10:00 A.M. EDT
Census Bureau, Manufacturing and Construction Division

Builders slash prices to sell more homes
Sales up 5.3% in September, but prices plunging at fastest rate in 36 years
Rex Nutting
MarketWatch, 1:10 PM ET Oct 26, 2006

Existing-Home Sales Declined In September Despite Price Drop
WSJ, October 25, 2006 11:38 a.m.

Friday, October 27, 2006 | 06:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack (2)
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Tracked on Oct 27, 2006 11:19:47 AM

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Tracked on Nov 15, 2006 3:22:13 AM


I spent the last two weeks looking at houses on the west coast of Florida from Naples to Sarasota.

Some typical anecdotal information: In a subdivision built by Lennar in Sarasota, completed unsold houses were reduced by 20%. When I still appeared reluctant to buy, the salesman threw in landscaping worth a few thousand dollars. Some of these houses sold last year for a million dollars. They are now in the 8 hundred thousand or less range. About one third to half of the houses sold last year are on the market. They were purchased by investors thinking they would flip the property and are now stuck with it.

I was the only potential buyer in sight. I spent time with a broker looking at existing homes. The broker’s cell phone rang every 25 minutes with other brokers that knew my broker had a customer, calling to tell her about price reductions.

The market was much worse than I thought and convinced me not to buy yet.

Posted by: Eric | Oct 27, 2006 8:16:34 AM

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