Housing starts Oct 2008-Sept 2010According to the Commerce Department, the number of single-family Housing Starts increased to 452,000 units in September, a 19,000 improvement over August.

A “housing start” is a new home on which construction has started.

Housing Starts data is surveyed and broken-down by housing type:

  1. Single-Family Housing Starts
  2. Multi-Unit Housing Starts (2-4 Units)
  3. Apartment Building Housing Starts (5 or more units)

The government logs each type separately, but also lumps them into a single, comprehensive figure within its reports. For this reason, headlines surrounding the story seem contradictory.

For example:

  • Marketwatch : Housing starts rise for 3rd straight month, up 0.3%
  • CNN : Housing starts jump to 5-month high

It’s single-family homes that most Americans purchase, though, and that’s why single-family starts are the numbers worth watching. As 75% of the market, it’s more relevant than the joint numbers most commonly reported by the press.

In September, single-family starts did move to a 5-month high but buyers and sellers should keep the figures in perspective. Just because starts are rising doesn’t mean the housing sector has turned around for good.

The first reason why is because, in September, starts were 75 percent less as compared to 5 years ago at the peak of housing. And if you feel that’s an unfair comparison, even as compared to the last 12 months, September’s data was tens of thousands below average.

Second, September’s Margin of Error happened to exceed its actual measurement. This means that the 4 percent in starts may actually turn out to be a loss of 4 percent (or more!) once the data is collected in full.

If there’s a reason to think the New Homes market is coming back, though, it’s that home builder confidence is also at a 5-month high. Foot traffic is rising and builders are optimistic about the next six months.  This could mean higher sales prices and less chance for negotiation.

Buyers in search of new homes may find it tougher to make a deal the closer we get to 2011.