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Housing starts beat 1 million annual pace for second month

WASHINGTON -- Builders broke ground on 1 million U.S. homes in May, indicating the industry is picking up this quarter after a weather-induced slump to start the year.

The number of housing starts followed April’s 1.07 million annualized rate that was the most since November, a Commerce Department report showed Tuesday in Washington.

Permits, a proxy for future construction, decreased, reflecting a decline in the volatile multi family category.

A strengthening job market and a retreat in mortgage costs in recent weeks is helping support residential real estate following a lull in building in early 2014.

Faster sales will prompt developers to step up construction, given supplies of homes on the market remain lean and property values are rising.

“Housing is fine,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York. “Demand is improving.”

Permits decreased 6.4 percent to a 991,000 annualized rate. Applications for multifamily work dropped 19.5 percent, while those for single-family projects that make up the biggest share of the market rose 3.7 percent to the highest level since November.

Construction of single-family houses declined 5.9 percent to a 625,000 rate from 664,000 in April.

Multifamily projects

Work on multifamily homes, such as condominiums and apartment buildings, decreased 7.6 percent to an annual rate of 376,000.

Three of four regions had a decrease in starts last month, led by a 25.2 percent drop in the Northeast. Work began on 7.3 percent more houses in the South, Tuesday’s report showed.

Confidencein the homebuilding industry rebounded this month, figures showed Monday.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo confidence index climbed to 49 in June from 45 in May, the biggest gain since July 2013.

The gauges for current sales, the outlook for future purchases and prospective buyer traffic all improved to the highest level since January.

MDC Holdings Inc. (NYSE: MDC), a Denver-based homebuilder, is among those seeing a gradual recovery.

“Interest rates still remain at historically low levels, in fact we’ve seen them kind of move down here recently over the last several weeks,” John Stephens, chief financial officer, said on June 5.

“We need to see improvements in consumer confidence and job growth, really, which is really going to drive homebuilding at the end of the day.”

More support

Faster hiring and more widespread access to credit would help spur demand for homes. Payrolls in May exceeded the pre- recession peak for the first time, according to Labor Department data.

Employment grew by 217,000 after increasing by 282,000 in April. It marked the fourth consecutive month of gains of more than 200,000, the first time that’s happened since early 2000. The jobless rate held at an almost six-year low of 6.3 percent.

Borrowing costs, which climbed in the second half of 2013, have retreated in the past month.

The average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 4.2 percent in the week ended June 12, down from 4.41 percent at the beginning of April, according to data from Freddie Mac in McLean, Va. Overall, mortgage costs are still near historically low levels.

Increasing property prices are hurting affordability for those getting into the market, at the same time they also help homeowners feel wealthier and may keep boosting profits for builders.

GDP impact

Residential investment subtracted from growth over the past two quarters after boosting the economy since the end of 2010, according to Commerce Department figures.

Gross domestic product shrank at a 1 percent annualized rate in the first three months of 2014, as homebuilding slowed.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen flagged housing as a risk to the outlook in testimony to Congress in May.

Central bank officials also raised a warning flag about the “persistent slowdown in the housing sector,” according to minutes of their April 29-30 meeting.

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