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U.S. building permits reach 3½-year high; housing starts slow

April 17, 2012|By Tiffany Hsu
  • New homes under construction in Santa Clarita last month. U.S. builders started work on fewer homes in March while requesting the most permits for future projects in 3½ years.
New homes under construction in Santa Clarita last month. U.S. builders… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

New building activity slowed to a five-month low in March, but fret not: U.S. builders still seem optimistic about the housing market, requesting the most permits for future residential projects in 3½ years.

Permit requests last month for construction on single-family homes and apartments jumped to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 747,000, up 4.5% from February and a whopping 30.1% from March 2011, according to the Commerce Department.  

That’s the highest number since September 2008. The West led the boom with 179,000 requested permits — a 23% jump from February and a 44% year-over-year leap.

The data, according to analysts from Credit Suisse, is “a good sign for broader economic activity.” Such news may help buoy economic confidence in the country, which pollster Gallup said Tuesday is drifting just below a four-year high.

Less hope-inspiring were actual housing starts, which fell below analysts' expectations to 654,000 — a five-month low and 5.8% below February’s number.

Groundbreakings on single-family properties fell a bit, but the real plunge happened with new construction on apartments. Multi-unit starts tumbled to 178,000 in March, a nearly 20% slide from February’s 222,000.

Compared with last March, however, overall groundbreakings were up more than 10%. And last month’s 600,000 housing completions were an improvement both on February and last year.

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