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Harsh weather weighs on January housing starts

Paquale Cocca installs an electrical box on a

Paquale Cocca installs an electrical box on a new home in Pepper Pike, Ohio, as winter weather began in earnest on Jan 10. 2014. The U.S. Commerce Department said Feb. 19, 2014, that the pace of U.S. home construction declined more than forecast in January, indicating an unusually harsh winter probably played a role in slowing projects. Credit: AP / Tony Dejak

The pace of U.S. home construction declined more than forecast in January, indicating an unusually harsh winter probably played a role in slowing projects.

Housing starts fell 16 percent to an 880,000 annualized rate following December's revised 1.05 million, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday in Washington. The decrease was the biggest since February 2011. The median estimate of 84 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for 950,000. Permits for future projects showed a smaller drop, a sign activity may stabilize as the weather improves.

The coldest January in two decades probably limited groundbreaking for home builders as construction dropped to a record low in the Midwest. At the same time, a strengthening labor market in 2014 may help the housing industry pick up from a slow start to the year even as borrowing costs rise.

"A lot of it is weather, obviously," Richard Moody, chief economist at Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, Ala., said before the report. Still, "the story is better job and income growth and you have all this pent-up demand."

Estimates for starts in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 880,000 to 1.04 million. The December reading was revised up from a previously estimated 999,000 pace.

The U.S. Commerce Department's housing report showed applications for building permits declined 5.4 percent to a 937,000 pace in January, fewer than the projected 975,000, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

For all of 2013, builders began work on 926,700 homes, up the most since 2007's 1.36 million.

Work on single-family houses dropped 15.9 percent to a 573,000 rate in January, the fewest since August 2012, from 681,000 the prior month. Construction of multifamily projects such as condominiums and apartment buildings declined 16.3 percent to an annual rate of 307,000, a three-month low.

Regional Breakdown

Three of four regions showed declines in groundbreaking last month, led by a record 67.7 percent plunge in the Midwest to a 50,000 annualized pace, the fewest in data going back to 1959. Starts dropped 12.5 percent in the South.

The total drop may not be fully attributed to bad weather as the West, where temperatures were higher than normal, also showed a 17.4 percent decrease, the biggest since November 2012.

In the Northeast, where the mercury also declined, starts surged 61.9 percent, the most since December 2012.

Inclement weather has weighed on the economy so far this year, holding back builders and preventing customers from visiting car dealerships and retailers. Government offices in Washington closed Feb. 13 as a winter storm that paralyzed the South with snow and ice moved to the Northeast, canceling flights, snarling traffic and downing power lines.

Confidence among U.S. home builders plunged in February by the most on record as the bad weather limited prospective buyer traffic and depressed sales.

The National Association of Home Builders-Wells Fargo sentiment gauge slumped to 46 this month, weaker than the most pessimistic estimate in a Bloomberg survey, from 56 in January, figures from the Washington-based group showed yesterday. All four regions showed declines. Readings less than 50 mean more respondents reported poor market conditions than good.

Beyond weather, borrowing costs for home buyers have climbed since mid-2013. The 30-year fixed mortgage rate averaged 4.28 percent in the week ended Feb. 13, up from 3.35 percent in early May last year, according to data from Freddie Mac in McLean, Va.

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