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U.S. Sawmill Production Fails to Keep Pace With Housing Demand for Lumber

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U.S. Sawmill Production Fails to Keep Pace With Housing Demand for Lumber

NAHB Policy Briefing | Insufficient production is causing an unprecedented spike in lumber prices as sawmill output fails to keep up with consumer demand and housing starts outpace lumber production

By National Association of Home Builders January 28, 2022
Sawmill lumber inspection
A slow reaction by sawmills amid strong demand for lumber during the pandemic has resulted in record-breaking lumber prices. | Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (CC by 2.0)
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Pro Builder.

The residential construction industry faced many challenges in 2021, but none as big as the high price and inconsistent supply of lumber.

A slow reaction by sawmills amid strong demand for new homes and a significant uptick in demand from do-it-yourselfers and big-box retailers during the pandemic resulted in lumber prices peaking at a record-shattering $1,500 per thousand board feet in May 2021.

Despite a gradual decline through late August, prices have begun to rise again, with several factors contributing to the recent spike, including ongoing supply chain disruptions, a doubling of tariffs on Canadian lumber imports into the U.S. market, and an unusually intense summer wildfire season in the western U.S. and in British Columbia.


Central to the rising prices, however, is the failure of U.S. sawmills to boost output at a pace sufficient to meet strong and consistent consumer demand for newly built homes (see chart, below).

The lumber industry has cited ongoing challenges with labor as a key reason for the insufficient lumber production, but U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate sawmill employment is rising—up 2.4% in October 2021 (the latest data available)—a net gain of 2,100 jobs, since October 2020. Mean-while, residential construction employment was up 4%, or a net gain of 118,500 jobs, over the same time period.

Also, the most recent U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis numbers demonstrate that the seasonally adjusted rate of sawmill output in September 2021 was 1.2% higher year over year. However, output in Q3 2021 was 1.3% lower than it was in Q3 2020.

Housing starts are outpacing lumber production

Even as strong consumer demand for new homes continues and sawmill employment returns to pre-pandemic levels, softwood lumber production continues to fall short. The result is record-high lumber prices that are driving up the cost of new single- and multifamily homes, according to National Association of Home Builders’ analysis of various federal data sources (shown below), which compare single-family starts and sawmill output, indexed so 2012 levels equal 100.

Chart showing 2020-21 sawmill production compared with single-family housing starts
Photos: top, nullplus / stock.adobe.com; bottom, trekandphoto / stock.adobe.com

The growing gap between the two measures is the reason for the dramatic increase in lumber prices. Note that single-family starts were up 13.6% in 2020 and are up 15.7% year-to-date in 2021. While sawmill production did increase in 2020, that rise in output was not sufficient to keep up with the demand from residential construction.

The shortfall in softwood lumber output relative to new-home demand continued in 2021, and key indicators suggest housing production will keep outpacing lumber production into 2022.


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Written By

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing more than 140,000 members involved in home building, remodeling, multifamily construction, property management, subcontracting, design, housing finance, building product manufacturing, and other aspects of residential and light commercial construction. For more, visit nahb.orgFacebook.com/NAHBhomeTwitter.com/NAHBhome

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