Irish House Building appears to have bottomed

The Department of the Environment publishes  official figures on house completions in Ireland, based on connections to the ESB network,  and puts the 2013 total at 8,300 which is modestly below the 2012 figure of 8,488 and as such marks a new low in the house building cycle. Indeed the figure is the lowest since records began in the early 1970s in absolute terms and implies a 0.4% addition to the housing stock (estimated at around 2 million)  which is also less than the obsolescence rate commonly assumed for the Irish housing market. Last year’s outturn also stands in  contrast to the 93,000 completed at the peak of the cycle in 2006 and alongside the plunge in prices and mortgage lending is a stark commentary on the scale of the  housing bust in Ireland.

Evidence that the cycle is turning is apparent from last year’s data on house prices and the recent trend in completions also supports the view that the supply side of the market has bottomed out, despite a  further fall in annual completions last year. That reflected a weak first half of the year, with 3,700 completions, but the second half saw a pick up, with over 4,600 units built. My own model of completions now points to a figure around 9,500 for 2014, although any forecast is subject to event risk.

Some readers may even  view the  completions total as high given the scale of vacant houses revealed in the 2011 census ( 230,000 nationally excluding holiday homes) and one clue as to the reason is revealed by a composition breakdown of the total, as 57% were single houses, presumably built to demand, and this type of completion amounted to only a quarter of the total six years ago. The share taken by apartments has halved, to around 11%, with less than 1,000 completed last year , and housing schemes make up the residual, accounted for 32% of the total from a peak of over 50%. Consequently the amount of what one might term speculative building is still extremely low , albeit having risen slightly as a share of the total last year, and may tick up further this year assuming that prices do not resume their fall.

The trend in completions  is  also not uniform across the country, with half of the 34 counties and city councils recording some gains. These increases were generally very small in absolute terms, nonetheless,  with the largest being in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, where 260 units were completed, a rise of 85 from 2012. That figure was around 2,500 a year at the peak of the boom with building in South Dublin even higher at over 3,300 , but completions in that area amounted to only 203 last year and that was marginally down on 2012. Completions in the City of Dublin  were broadly unchanged around 500 units but rose marginally in the cities of Waterford, Limerick and Galway, albeit from very low levels.

A number of studies on the Irish housing collapse concluded that prices probably overshot on the downside  and although it is less obvious that the same can be said for house building there is a big difference between where people want to live and where there is an excess supply of housing, and so 2013 may  also  mark a turning point in terms of house completions.