July Construction Recedes Two Percent Overall but Building Numbers Grow

New construction starts in July decreased two percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $479.1 billion, according to the latest construction starts numbers released by McGraw Hill Construction. Nonresidential building strengthened in July, regaining some of the upward momentum that began to take hold in April and May. For the first seven months of 2013, total construction starts on an unadjusted basis were reported at $281.7 billion, up one percent from the same period a year ago. The year-to-date amount for total construction was restrained by a steep decline for new electric utility starts. If electric utilities are excluded, total construction starts for this year’s January-July period would be up 11 percent, reflecting a substantial increase for housing as well as moderate improvement for commercial building.

“July’s modest decline for total construction was the result of diminished activity for public works, which can be volatile on a month-to-month basis depending on the timing of very large projects,” says Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw Hill Construction. “Aside from the public works shortfall, the July statistics provided evidence that the hesitant expansion for construction is proceeding. Housing continues to show upward movement, and the pace of commercial building continues to pick up gradually from very low levels. The institutional building portion of nonresidential building, which generally weakened during the first half of 2013, strengthened in July, suggesting that it may now be starting to stabilize after a lengthy decline that’s lasted for more than four years. While the recovery for construction may be broadening in scope, the process continues to be tenuous given the ongoing sluggish condition of the U.S. economy.”

Commercial categories in July slipped 2 percent, due to varied behavior by project type. Office construction in July dropped 15 percent, although this followed a substantial 44 percent increase in June, and the level of activity in July was 21 percent higher than the average monthly pace for this category during 2012. Hotel construction in July fell 30 percent, registering comparatively weak activity after the elevated pace earlier in 2013. Store construction in July edged up 2 percent. The manufacturing plant category in July posted a further decline, falling 31 percent as the slower activity witnessed so far in 2013 continued.

Nonresidential building in July advanced 8 percent to $161.3 billion (annual rate). At the outset of 2013, nonresidential building lost momentum, and then showed moderate growth in April and May before slipping back again in June. The institutional building sector in July jumped 19 percent, as several categories reported sizeable gains. Healthcare facilities in July climbed 25 percent. The transportation terminal category in July surged 111 percent, while the public buildings category, which has recently been very weak, jumped 46 percent in July. Educational facilities, the largest institutional category, also contributed in July with a three percent increase, rising for the second month in a row after weak activity in early 2013. Institutional categories that weakened in July were churches, down three percent; and amusement-related construction, down seven percent.

By geography, total construction starts in the first seven months of 2013 revealed gains in three regions – the West, up nine percent; and the South Central and the Northeast, each up eight percent. Year-to-date declines were reported for two regions – the Midwest, down one percent; and the South Atlantic, down 14 percent. If electric utilities are excluded from the construction start statistics in the South Atlantic, then that region would register a 20 percent year-to-date gain.

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