January 18

Data show continued home-building growth

But higher mortgage rates could be slowing a surge as December’s numbers reveal a dip in the trend.

By Martin Crutsinger
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. home construction slowed in December but ended 2013 with the best showing since the housing bubble burst.

The Commerce Department said Friday that builders broke ground last month at a seasonally annual rate of 999,000. That’s 9.8 percent lower than November’s pace of 1.12 million, which was the fastest in five years.

For the year, builders started 923,000 homes and apartments, up 18.3 percent from 2012. It was the fourth straight annual gain and the strongest since 2007, when 1.36 million homes were started.

The housing market has been recovering steadily over the past year, helping to boost economic growth and create jobs. But a rise in mortgage rates from record lows reached a year ago have started to weigh on those gains.

Still, economists said they December’s dip in activity followed a huge gain November. They also blamed some of the decline last month on cold weather, which may have disrupted some construction activity.

“Despite really bad weather, builders still managed to keep digging and that is a great indication that the housing market continues to move forward,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

For December, construction of single-family homes, which makes up roughly two-thirds of home building, fell 7 percent to an annual rate of 667,000. Construction of apartments, which can be more volatile, dropped 14.9 percent to a 332,000 rate.

Applications for building permits, considered a good sign of future activity, fell 3 percent in December to a rate of 986,000. Single-family permits fell 4.8 percent. Permits for apartments were unchanged.

Construction activity in December fell 33.5 percent in the Midwest and 12.3 percent in the South. Construction rose 15 percent in the West and was unchanged in the Northeast.

Mortgage rates are roughly a percentage point higher than in the spring. Still, they remain low by historical standards. The average rate on a 30-year mortgage fell to 4.41 percent this week. That’s down from a peak of 4.6 percent in August.

U.S. home builders remain generally upbeat ahead of the spring home-buying season.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index slipped to 56 in January, down slightly from a 57 reading in December. Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor.

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