WASHINGTON – Construction of new homes rose in February to the highest level in five months, but applications for new construction were weak for a third month.
Housing starts rose 5.2 per cent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.18 million units, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Construction had fallen in January in December, declines that had been blamed in part on winter weather.
Applications for building permits, a gauge of future activity, fell 3.1 per cent to an annual rate of 1.17 million units after a flat reading in January and a drop in December.
The decline in building permits, unless reversed, could signal future trouble in an industry that was a bright spot for the economy last year.
But Bricklin Dwyer, an economist with BNP Paribas, said the slump in building permit applications should only translate into a brief construction slowdown given the solid fundamentals supporting housing.
“We see a resilient labour market as supportive of a continued slow and steady housing recovery and low housing inventory should continue to bolster residential construction ahead,” Dwyer said.
For February, construction of single-family homes rose 7.2 per cent to an annual rate of 822,000 units. Construction in the smaller apartment sector edged up a slight 0.8 per cent to a rate of 356,000 units.
Regionally, construction activity plunged 51.3 per cent in the Northeast but showed strength in all other regions. Construction rose 19.9 per cent in the Midwest, 7.1 per cent in the South and 26.1 per cent in the West.
The National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index held steady at 58 for March. Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor.
Sales of new homes surged 14.5 per cent last year to 501,000, marking the strongest year for this segment of the housing market since 2007.
Economists are forecasting another good year for housing as strong employment gains led more people to decide to purchase homes. Strength in home construction was a pillar of growth for the economy last year.