Apartments pace building surge

U.S. homebuilders broke the 1 million mark in March for the first time since June 2008 — led by a surge in apartment construction.

The overall pace of homes started rose 7 percent from February to March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.04 million, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

A second report on Tuesday showed U.S. consumer prices declined last month as the cost of gasoline fell sharply and food prices were unchanged.

Another report showed U.S. industrial output rose in March as cold weather kept utilities busy generating heat and a surge in auto production helped offset broader weakness in manufacturing.

Apartment construction, which tends to fluctuate sharply from month to month, led the homebuilder surge: It jumped nearly 31 percent to an annual rate of 417,000, the fastest pace since January 2006.

By contrast, single-family home building, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the market, fell 4.8 percent to an annual rate of 619,000. That was down from February’s pace of 650,000, the fastest since May 2008. The government said February’s pace was a sharp 5.2 percent higher than it had previously estimated.

Applications for building permits, a gauge of future construction, declined 3.9 percent to an annual rate of 902,000. It was down from February’s rate of 939,000, which was also nearly a five-year high.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, called the data “obviously good news.” He noted that the surge was due to a jump in volatile apartment construction and said the pace of building could drop in April.

Steady job growth, near record-low mortgage rates and rising home values have encouraged more people to buy. Builders have stepped up construction.

March’s pace of homes started was nearly 46 percent higher than in the same month in 2012.

Housing construction fell 5.8 percent in the Northeast.

The South saw a 10.9 percent rise. Construction rose 9.6 percent in the Midwest and 2.7 percent in the West.