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New home construction surges in September; recovery still elusive

October 19, 2011 |  9:36 am

Homes under construction in Southern California

New residential construction surged 15% in September, turning in its best performance in 17 months, though economists warned that a housing recovery has yet to take hold.

While new construction is key to getting the economy going, much of the new building came from the apartment sector, which can be very volatile. Many economists also noted that permits pulled for new construction, also an important measure of builders’ plans for the future, declined in September.

Nevertheless, the news of the increase cheered investors on Wall Street as well as several housing analysts who follow the numbers closely.

“A strong residential construction number is a welcome relief for an economy struggling to hang on to expansion and a hopeful harbinger of better days to come,” Celia Chen, a housing economist with Moody’s Analytics, wrote in a research note Wednesday morning. “Caution, however, needs to be taken in interpreting the surprisingly strong top-line housing starts for September.”

Builders started new residential units at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 658,000 in September, a 15% increase over the prior month and up 10.2% from the same month the year before, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Single-family homes were built at a rate of 425,000 units, which is only 1.7% above a revised August estimate, meaning the bulk of the increase came from the building of structures with five or more units.

News of the increase in new home starts came one day after builder confidence in the market rose, according to a closely watched index that measures builder sentiment. The National Assn. of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index jumped by four points to 18 in what was the biggest one-month gain since April 2010, when a tax credit for buyers was fueling purchases. Sentiment remains pretty dismal, however, as a number above 50 indicates more builders view conditions as good than poor.

“A stagnant economy and labor market has meant that housing recovery over the past year has been painfully slow, but we do believe that housing is gradually healing and recovering,” Nishu Sood, a home-building analyst with Deutsche Bank, wrote in a research note Wednesday.

Despite that cautious optimism, economists also pointed to the housing permits number released Tuesday by the Commerce Department, which signaled a more mixed picture for housing. New residential building permits were issued at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 594,000 units, which is 5.0% below the revised August rate, though still up 5.7% from September 2010.

“We would warn against getting too excited as the fundamental picture has not changed; household formation is still too low and the excess supply is still too high to warrant a major rise in home building,” read part of an analysis by Capital Economics.

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-- Alejandro Lazo

Photo: Homes under construction in Southern California. Credit: Getty Images

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