US housing starts drop to near record low

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Curvin Horst uses a nail gun as he builds a new home for Landmark Homes in Hummelstown, Pa.

New-home construction looks a lot like the tag line from that old commercial: It’s fallen and it can’t get up.

Housing starts turned down again in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 510,000 units, a decline of 10.8 percent from February, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. March's total was only 4.5 percent above January’s figure, which was the lowest monthly total on record in 50 years of federal record-keeping.

For the past six months, the housing record has been at lows never seen since at least 1959.

If anything, the picture for single-family homes is even worse. For each of the past three months, housing starts have fallen to never-before-seen lows of 356,000 to 358,000 units. In the depths of the 1981-82 recession, in what had been until now the worst postwar slump, housing numbers had never fallen below 523,000 a month – more than 45 percent above this year’s levels.

Regionally, the picture is more dynamic. Single-family housing starts in the Northeast rose strongly for the second month in a row, from 27,000 units in January to 47,000 in March, a rise of 74 percent. The Midwest was stable and the South fell a bit. The West, with 63,000 units started in March, was up slightly from February’s figure but down 23 percent from January’s total of 82,000. The two-month downturn virtually offsets the Northeast’s big gains.

The silver lining nationally, if there is one, is that housing starts aren’t getting worse. Of course, they’re not getting any better, either.

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