Climbing Housing Costs Could Prop Up Inflation for a While
Economists say rents will eventually moderate. Question is when?
Economists say rents will eventually moderate. Question is when?
Rents and other shelter costs are emerging as a major driver of overall consumer inflation, keeping it high at a time when many other sources are starting to ease.
Economists expect housing inflation to strengthen further before cooling off in the coming months, but are unsure of when relief will appear. This creates another challenge for the US Federal Reserve as it raises interest rates to reduce price pressures.
Overall annual inflation eased to 8.3% in August from 8.5% in July, according to the Labor Department’s consumer-price index. That reflected declines from the month before in prices for items such as gasoline, airfares and used cars, and slower price increases in other categories, such as groceries.
Housing was an outlier. Not only are shelter costs rising, they are climbing at an accelerating pace, accounting for a growing share of the overall inflation rate—about 25% of August’s rate, up from about 20% in February.
Shelter costs—comprising mostly rents and a gauge of home prices known as owners’ equivalent rent—rose 0.7% in August from the previous month, up from 0.5% in July. They rose 6.2% in August from a year before, up from 5.7% in July.
The price of housing “was always going to be a persistent boost to inflation this year,” said Omair Sharif, head of the advisory firm Inflation Insights LLC. “It has absolutely ticked up over the last three months and it is offsetting declines in things like airfares and hotel rates.”
Fed officials have raised interest rates this year at the fastest clip in decades to combat inflation, which hit a 40-year high in June. They are widely expected to lift rates by 0.75 percentage point after their two-day policy meeting concluding on Wednesday. That would be the third consecutive increase of that size.
Rising housing costs also increase the chances that the Fed will raise interest rates by 0.75 percentage point again at its November policy meeting, economists at Barclays wrote in a report for clients.
Economists and firms tracking private data expect housing inflation in the CPI to cool eventually because the rent increases they see in new leases appear to be slowing. That should show up in the CPI with a lag because of the way it is constructed, they say. Most of the time, most renters pay the same price every month, while those who renew their lease or sign new ones are more likely to see an increase. Private firms, such as Apartment List Inc., which tracks rental prices, record only the rent amounts in new leases.
By this method, the median US rent increased 10% in August from the previous year, down from a recent peak of 18% in November 2021, according to data from Apartment List.
The CPI’s rent component, in contrast, is estimated based on rents paid across the market, which includes rents raised months ago.
Home prices surged during the pandemic, boosted by low mortgage rates, changes in home-buying preferences, population trends and low inventories of homes for sale.
But government agencies don’t take home prices directly into account when calculating inflation because they consider a home purchase to be a long-term investment rather than a consumer good.
Instead, the CPI uses rents to create its estimate of homeowners’ housing costs—called owners’ equivalent rent—which calculates the imputed rent, or what homeowners would have to pay each month to rent their own house.
Because rents rose strongly over the past year, those increases are now feeding into the CPI and other inflation measures.
The private estimates offer hope that housing inflation in the CPI will slow at some point, said Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List.
“On the one hand there’s some confidence that the shelter component of CPI is not going to completely run away from us,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s a growing concern that in the meantime, the shelter component’s really propping up inflation at a time when these numbers are under a microscope.”
Mr. Sharif said shelter cost increases should begin to cool either in the fourth quarter of 2022 or the first quarter of 2023. Barclays economists say it will happen this fall. Brett Ryan, senior economist at Deutsche Bank, estimates the peak won’t come until the second quarter of next year.
Economists at the Dallas Fed said in a paper published last month that they see a lag time of up to a year and a half between when market rents start to fall and when that decline shows up in the CPI.
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You’ll never guess where they found a little extra room when renovating this west coast house
There was a time, not too long ago, when the most important must-have for would-be renovators was space. It was all about space to be together and space to be apart.
But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.
For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint.
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Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.
“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”
The decision to demolish was not taken lightly.
“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”
Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.
“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”
To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.
“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says.
“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”
A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.
“That’s the plan anyway,” he says.
Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.
The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.
Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.
The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.
“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”
Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.
Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish.
“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”
Even the laundry has been carefully considered.
“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”
The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.
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