Housing construction posted a better-than-expected performance in March, rising to the highest level in 16 months on the strength of multifamily homes.
But the Commerce Department report Friday showed that construction of single-family homes, the most important segment of the market, fell. It dropped 0.9 percent to an annual rate of 531,000 units, after a strong 5.7 percent gain in February.
The sluggish nature of the housing recovery has helped slow the rebound of the broader economy.
Overall, construction rose 1.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 626,000 last month. That was higher than the 610,000 level that economists had expected. In addition, the government revised February to show a 1.1 percent gain rather than the initially reported drop of 5.9 percent.
Applications for building permits, considered a good barometer of future activity, also recorded a better-than-expected increase, rising 7.5 percent to an annual rate of 685,000.
Analysts are looking for any rebound in housing to be modest at best, given the severe problems still facing the industry. These include record home foreclosures and high unemployment, which robs potential buyers of the incomes they need to support a home purchase.
This weakness was offset by an 18.8 percent surge in the smaller multifamily sector, which rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 95,000 units. Analysts do not expect this strength to continue given a multitude of problems facing commercial real estate at the moment from high apartment vacancy rates to rising foreclosures of commercial properties.
By section of the country, all the strength in March came in the South, where construction activity jumped 18.2 percent, the best advance in 10 months. Building activity plunged 28.4 percent in the Midwest and was down 8.3 percent in the Northeast and 2.1 percent in the West.
The National Association of Home Builders said Thursday its housing market index, which tracks industry confidence, jumped four points to a reading of 19 in April, the highest level since September.
Builders are reporting a pickup in sales and customer traffic as homebuyers rush to qualify for expiring tax incentives. The tax credits — $8,000 for new buyers and $6,500 for current owners — expire at the end of this month.
Many economists believe the tax incentives will boost the number of buyers now but lead to a drop in sales in the second half of the year.
Home sellers also are having to cope with banks tightening up on lending standards and a sizable supply of unsold homes.
The number of homes seized by banks jumped 35 percent in the first quarter from a year ago, RealtyTrac Inc. said Thursday. In addition, households facing foreclosure increased 16 percent in the same period and 7 percent from the last three months of 2009.
More homes were taken over by banks and scheduled for a foreclosure sale than in any quarter going back to at least January 2005, when the foreclosure listings firm began reporting the data.
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