Updated March 29 at 3:29pm
economic indicators

Housing starts in U.S. surge on demand for multifamily units


WASHINGTON - New-home construction in the U.S. jumped more than forecast in March as multifamily projects climbed to the highest level in more than seven years.

Starts climbed 7 percent to a 1.04 million annual rate, the most since June 2008, after a revised 968,000 pace in February that was larger than previously reported, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The median estimate of 80 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 930,000. Building permits, a proxy for future construction, fell.

Builders are rushing to satisfy growing demand for rental units, propelling the jump in construction that will help support economic growth. Work began on fewer single-family houses last month, adding to evidence that part of the market is pausing.

“Whether it’s driven by demand from homebuyers or renters, it doesn’t really matter because it’s roofs over peoples’ heads,” said Aneta Markowska, chief U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who had the highest starts forecast in the Bloomberg survey. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement in housing, both for activity and for prices. This is critical for the U.S. economy.”

The cost of living in the U.S. declined in March for the first time in four months as cheaper gasoline and clothing kept inflation in check, another report today showed. The consumer- price index dropped 0.2 percent after a 0.7 percent jump in February, according to data from the Labor Department.

Shares climb

Stock-index futures extended earlier gains after the reports as corporate earnings topped estimates and commodity producers advanced. The contract on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index maturing in June rose 0.9 percent to 1,557.3 at 8:49 a.m. in New York

Estimates for housing starts in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 885,000 to 985,000 following a February pace that was first reported as 917,000.

Building permits fell 3.9 percent in March to a 902,000 annualized rate, reversing the prior month’s gain. They were projected to rise to 942,000, within a range of 905,000 to 990,000.

Three of four U.S. regions showed a gain in starts last month, led by a 10.9 percent increase in the South.

Construction of single-family houses fell 4.8 percent in March to a 619,000 rate, today’s report showed.

Multifamily starts

Work on multifamily homes, such as apartment buildings, jumped 31 percent to an annual rate of 417,000, the most since January 2006.

Builders began work on 780,000 homes in 2012, a 28 percent gain from the prior year and the third straight annual increase. Even with the improvements, starts are short of the 2.1 million in 2005 at the peak of the boom, which was a three-decade high.

“The momentum from the housing rebound during 2012 has remained strong in the early months of 2013,” John Stumpf, chief executive officer at Wells Fargo & Co., said on an April 12 earnings call. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo funded one in four U.S. mortgages in 2012. “Our near-term outlook is for steady gains in home sales, building activity, and price appreciation. Housing affordability remains excellent.”

Other reports have suggested a pause in the housing market. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index of confidence fell in April to the lowest since October, according to data released yesterday. Builders surveyed said rising costs for materials and financing restrictions held them back. At the same time, residential construction firms were more optimistic about future sales than at any time in six years.

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