Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Disappointing Report on Recent Household Growth Leads to More Questions than Answers

by Dan McCue
Research Manager
Although household growth is the major driver of housing demand, getting an accurate picture of recent trends in this measure is difficult, especially when Census surveys show conflicting trends.   On January 31, the most recent Housing Vacancy Survey (HVS) was released with Q4 numbers and some annual data for 2013.  As one of the few surveys that provide timely measures of household growth, the release was much anticipated in hopes that it would shed more light on trends of a recovery seen elsewhere in the housing market, but the results were disappointing, if not somewhat confusing. 

In its recent release, the HVS reported annual household growth of just 448,800 in 2013.  This represents a 48 percent drop in household growth relative to that from 2012 and marked the lowest annual household growth measure since 2008, in the depths of the Great Recession (Figure 1).

Source: US Census Bureau, Housing Vacancy Survey

In September we noted that the HVS was showing a disconcerting slowdown in household growth after finally having picked up in 2012.  With the annual number now in, this low measure of household growth in the HVS is puzzling, at odds with an assortment of other housing market indicators that have been painting a more positive picture for housing overall.  In particular, the drop in household growth did not mesh with several other trends:

  • The much higher 1.375 million annual growth reported in the 2013 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS/ASEC);
  • The same, steady increase in jobs in 2013 as during the previous year; and
  • Increased momentum in the housing market, including a further decline in vacancy rates, an increase in new home sales, and an increase in housing construction during the year.

The divergent measure of household growth from the HVS is also troubling because while the HVS is known to have a downward bias in its estimated count of households, it has been useful in tracking short-term trends in that it provides more timely estimates than other sources and has generally been subject to less sampling error.  Indeed, while the CPS/ASEC and HVS both originate from monthly CPS surveys, the HVS annual household growth number is a 12-month rolling average of year over year growth, whereas annual growth in the CPS/ASEC is year over year growth for the single March survey, making it more volatile and less reflective of trends throughout the entire year.

But this is not the only—or most important—source of difference between HVS and CPS/ASEC household counts.  These two surveys differ more fundamentally in that CPS/ASEC arrives at its estimate of households based on weights derived from estimates of the total population and the share who are heads of household, while the HVS estimates households using weights that add up to estimates of the total housing units in the country, with the household count derived as the number of housing units that are not vacant (see Note on Table 3).  During census years, the CPS/ASEC head-counting method has generally produced totals much closer to the decennial Census –the Census Bureau’s benchmark survey of people and housing--while the HVS stock-controlled method has generally produced estimates that are lower by around 3-4 million households. This suggests the HVS household estimates are generally biased lower to begin with.

With its household estimates pinned to estimates of the housing stock, the surprisingly low HVS household growth estimate may be at least in part due to overly low estimates of growth in the total housing stock.  As shown in Figure 2, over the past few years, the total housing stock estimate used by the HVS has been growing slowly and very steadily since 2011, gaining around 350,000 units a year.  At the same time the Census Bureau’s New Residential Construction surveys show a significant upturn in the number of new housing units completed in 2012 and 2013, reaching 762,000 units.  In order for the HVS estimates of changes in the housing stock to be accurate, this would suggest a surge in demolitions that roughly offset the recent surge in new construction, which seems unlikely. 

Source: JCHS tabulations of US Census Bureau, Housing Vacancy Survey and New Residential Construction data.

There is a third census survey from which household growth can be measured, the American Community Survey (ACS), that might shed more light on the recent trend. The ACS is not as timely, however, and the results for 2013 are not due to be released until late 2014.  Still, for 2012 the ACS reported household growth levels in between the HVS and CPS counts (978,000), suggesting it might prove a moderate and viable tie-breaker between the other two surveys on the direction of the recent trend. But since the ACS household estimates are linked to the same housing stock estimates as the HVS chances are the ACS, too, will be subject to a downward bias.

Overall, the discrepancies in these surveys are troubling given the importance of household growth as an indicator of the health of the economy and the housing market.  For the time being, housing analysts are flying in the dark on this key metric.

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