WASHINGTON (AP) — Builders broke ground last month on the fewest homes in nearly two years and cut their requests for permits to start new projects to a five-decade low. The decline in construction activity is the latest evidence that the housing industry is years away from a recovery.
Home construction plunged 22.5% in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 479,000 homes, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. It was the lowest level since April 2009 and the second-lowest on records dating back more than a half-century.
The decline followed a surge in highly volatile apartment construction in January, which pushed the overall construction rate up to more than 600,000 units — the fastest rate in 20 months. Still, the building pace has been far below the 1.2 million units a year that economists consider healthy.
Single-family homes, which make up roughly 80% of home construction, fell 11.8% in February. Apartment and condominium construction dropped 47%, reversing much of January's gains.
Building permits, an indicator of future construction, fell 8.1% last month to the lowest level on records dating back to 1960. Permit requests for single-family homes saw the biggest decline. Apartments and condos remained flat.
Falling prices, sluggish sales and the weak construction rate all point to a housing market that is "stuck at a bottom of a steep hill," according to Moody's Analytics Economic Research.
"There are really large structural problems with the housing market," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist with Miller Tabak + Co. "This is not a run-up in oil prices. This is a multiyear build up in the housing market that is going to take more than several months or several quarters to get through."