Household Formation Key To Housing Recovery

Financial FAQs

The formation of new households—young adults leaving the homestead—has always been an important ingredient of home sales. We are talking about 18 to 34 year-olds who have been staying at home during the Great Recession for understandable reasons—whether lack of jobs, or college. And 2011 was the first year that household formation returned to more normal levels, which is why we are seeing housing beginning to recover.

One impact of the Great Recession is that it markedly reduced the rate at which Americans set up households, said a recent Cleveland Federal Reserve report on household formation. But pent up demand from young adults finding jobs will certainly reverse that trend and lead to a stronger sales and price increases.

Compared to the previous 10 years, the growth rate in the number of households was cut by two-thirds between 2007 and 2010. This slowing in household formation reflects the overall weak economy, but it has also negatively impacted the housing market, as lower household formation rates reduce housing demand.


Graph: Cleveland Fed

While younger adults between the ages of 18 and 34 make up a relatively small proportion of heads of households, they account for almost three-quarters of the overall shortfall in household formation. The growth in the number of younger households was lower in metropolitan areas that experienced weaker labor and housing markets, though, to be sure, household formation slowed across the United States, consistent with the widespread nature of the shocks to output, labor, and housing markets that occurred during the Great Recession.

From 1997 to 2007, about 1.5 million households were formed on average each year in the United States. Then the Great Recession hit, and in the ensuing three years, the rate fell to 500,000 per year. This decline in household formation occurred even as the U.S. population was expanding at a rate of 2.7 million per year, only slightly below the rate of 2.9 million a year observed between 1997 and 2007. A “modest” rebound has since followed during the economic recovery, with 1.1 million new households being created in 2011.

That is why we predict much better years ahead for housing. The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) in a recent blog said, “Given the trends of the last five years, the spurt in household growth to an annual rate of 900,000 through the first three quarters of this year is notable.  If the upward trend in household growth continues, housing should see a sustained recovery in 2013.”


Graph: JCHS

In fact, we are already seeing the rebound in 2012, with both housing construction and new home sales increasing significantly. The Census Bureau reports New Home Sales in October were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 368 thousand. This was down from a revised 369 thousand SAAR in September, but up 17 percent from October 2011. Supply, at 4.8 months for the lowest reading since 2005, is very tight and actually is limiting sales, according to Calculated Risk.


Graph: Calculated Risk

And sales of existing homes increased in October, even with some regional impact from Hurricane Sandy, while home prices continued to rise due to lower levels of inventory supply. Total housing inventory at the end of October fell 1.4 percent to 2.14 million existing homes available for sale, according to the National Association of Realtors, which represents a 5.4-month supply at the current sales pace, down from 5.6 months in September, and is the lowest housing supply since February of 2006. It is 21.9 percent below a year ago when there was a 7.6-month supply, a sure sign that housing is already in recovery.

Harlan Green © 2012

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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