By Quentin Fottrell
Sales of hoes may lead to sales of homes.
Strong spending on gardening equipment, furniture, and building materials in March, could mean homeowners are busily preparing make their homes more attractive to buyers. Retail and food service sales rose 0.8% from February to a seasonally adjusted $411.07 billion, the Commerce Department reported Monday. But while overall sales were up 6.5% year-over-year, building material and garden equipment jumped over 14%. That bodes well for the housing market, says Susan M. Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “These retail sales are another an indicator of better home sales ahead,” she says.
What’s more, strong retail sales in March for home improvements come on the back of brisk growth in sales from both Lowes and Home Depot. Lowe’s recently announced a 13% spike in sales to $11.63 billion helped by an unusually mild winter and better cost control, while Home Depot’s fourth-quarter earnings rose 32% to $774 million. Wachter says the double-digit sales increase in Lowe’s other items like kitchen and bathroom cabinets – typically a big consideration for house-hunters — and new flooring further shows that homeowners may be preparing to increase the appeal of their homes.
Others say home improvers may be biding their time. “Lawn care and showcasing nice furniture are always an important aspect of trying to sell a home,” says David Abuaf, chief investment officer at Hefty Wealth Partners in Auburn, Ind. “But I think the March retail figures are driven more by maintenance and upkeep rather than a desire to sell immediately.” Scott MacDonald, head of research at MC Asset Management, is more skeptical. “I think consumers are more fragile than most people think,” he says. Recent jobs data are gloomier than economists hope: the pace of hiring slowed in March as U.S. employers added just 120,000 jobs in the month — half the number added in each of the previous three months.
But there have been several other encouraging signs that the housing market may be regaining its pep. Existing home sales recorded the strongest February in five years, according to the National Association of Realtors and, according to the most recent Commerce Department figures, the number of new single-unit houses authorized for construction rose nearly 5% in February. “We expect to see gains through the all-important summer months,” he says. And for homeowners, Wachter says, “It’s better to fluff now to attract buyers.”