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Construction lit up in November, with groundbreakings increasing 3.2 percent, according to the Commerce Department. Combined, housing starts totaled 1.26 million, with 417,000 multifamily starts and 824,000 single-family starts—the latter tanking 4.6 percent. On an annual basis, groundbreaking inched up 0.4 percent.

Approvals for builds overall spiked, up 5 percent to 1.33 million permits. Approvals for single-family starts ticked up 0.1 percent to 848,000, while approvals for multifamily starts totaled 441,000.

Completions surged, as well, up 0.4 percent to 1.1 million. Completions in the single-family space, however, tumbled 5.4 percent to 772,000. Completions in the multifamily space totaled 314,000.

“The decline in single-family production over the last few months makes sense given the drop in our builder confidence index,” said Randy Noel, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in a statement. According to the NAHB, builder confidence in December dropped four points.

“Builders are cautious to add inventory as housing affordability concerns are causing consumers to pause on making a home purchase,” Noel said.

“The relative strength in building activity in November is welcome news after months of lackluster reports, but the topline numbers obscure some persistent weakness in the sector,” said Aaron Terrazas, senior economist at Zillow, in a statement. “Much of last month’s growth was driven by the volatile multifamily segment, with single-family home building activity falling.

“As it becomes more clear that the three headline construction indices—permits, starts and completions—all look to end 2018 on a sour note, speculation has already begun as to whether the construction industry is a macroeconomic canary in the coal mine signaling a larger shift to come,” Terrazas said. “Permits and starts are down from a year ago, and completions are just barely higher—the end-game of projects begun months or years ago when the outlook was a bit rosier.

“This construction pullback is not due to lack of demand, and instead seems born out of builders’ fears that it’s almost impossible for them to profitably deliver new homes at the lower price points where that demand is strongest,” said Terrazas. “Builders have struggled with rising labor, materials and land costs for years, and while materials costs have eased somewhat lately, labor costs have only surged higher. Rising mortgage interest rates, tax changes and an aging recovery have also snowballed, putting a meaningful dent in what buyers can afford to pay. Having turned a corner in 2018, the critical unknown for 2019 will be whether this builders’ retreat will prove to be prescient or premature.”

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