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US housing starts tumble in February, weather likely a factor

[WASHINGTON] US housing starts plunged to their lowest level in a year in February likely as harsh weather kept builders at home, a temporary setback for the housing market recovery.

Groundbreaking tumbled 17 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 897,000 units, the lowest level since January 2014, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

January's starts were revised up to a 1.08 million-unit pace from the previously reported 1.07 million-unit rate.

February's decline pulled starts below the one million-unit threshold for the first time since last August. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast groundbreaking at a 1.05 million-unit pace in February.

Snowy and cold weather conditions gripped much of the country in the second half of February. Harsh weather, which weighed on retail sales in February, is likely to be a drag on first-quarter growth.

Housing starts were down 3.3 per cent compared to February last year. Groundbreaking fell in all four regions, plunging 56.5 per cent in the Northeast to their lowest level since January 2009.

Starts in the Midwest dropped 37 per cent to a year low. In the West, groundbreaking activity fell 18.2 per cent. Starts in the South, where most of the home building takes place, slipped 2.5 per cent.

But the step back in housing starts is likely to be short-lived. A rapidly tightening labor market is expected to push up wage growth and encourage more young adults to move out of their parents' basements and set up their own homes.

Already in the fourth quarter, household formation was accelerating, breaking above the one-million mark that usually is associated with a fairly healthy housing market.

While much of the gain in households will go into rentals, that will still be a boost to housing starts this year.

Last month, single-family homes groundbreaking, the largest part of the market, declined 14.9 per cent to its lowest level since last June. Groundbreaking for the multi-family homes segment dived 20.8 per cent.

In February, permits for future home construction increased 3.0 per cent to a 1.09 million-unit pace, the highest level since last October. Permits have been above a 1 million-unit pace since July.

Single-family permits fell 6.2 per cent last month to a nine-month low. Multi-family permits surged 18.3 per cent.