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February homebuilder confidence in US slumped on weather

WASHINGTON -- Confidence among U.S. homebuilders plunged in February by the most on record, as bad weather limited prospective buyer traffic and depressed sales.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo sentiment gauge slumped to 46 this month from 56 in January, figures from the Washington-based group showed Tuesday.

Readings less than 50 mean more respondents reported poor market conditions than good.

Snowstorms last week from the South to the Northeast helped reduce homebuyer traffic to its slowest pace since April.

Purchases and sales expectations also declined as builder confidence deteriorated from coast to coast, signaling construction will contribute less to economic growth at the start of 2014.

“Significant weather conditions across most of the country led to a decline in buyer traffic last month,” said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a homebuilder and developer from Wilmington, Del.

“Builders also have additional concerns about meeting ongoing and future demand due to a shortage of lots and labor.”

The February decrease was the biggest since monthly record- keeping began in 1985.

The group’s measure of the six-month sales outlook decreased to 54 from 60, while the index of current single-family home purchases dropped to 51 from 62 in January. Both of the February readings were the weakest since May.

The gauge of prospective buyer traffic slumped to 31 this month

Builder confidence declined in all four U.S. regions, led by a 14-point plunge in the West to the lowest level since June.

The index dropped nine points in the Midwest to 50, the weakest reading since May.

In the South, the measure decreased to a nine-month low of 46, while sentiment among builders in the Northeast fell eight points.

Inclement weather has taken a toll on the economy so far this year.

Government offices in Washington closed Feb. 13 as a winter storm that paralyzed the South with snow and ice moved to the Northeast, canceling flights, snarling traffic and downing power lines along the way.

This month’s storm follows the coldest January since 1994 in the contiguous United States, based on gas-weighted heating-degree days, a measure of energy demand, according to Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Md.

The Northeast is also on track for the coldest winter since 1982, measured from December to February, the group said.

“The weather also hurt retail and auto sales and this had a contributing effect on demand for new homes," David Crowe, the NAHB’s chief economist, said. “Clearly, constraints on the supply chain for building materials, developed lots and skilled workers are making builders worry.”

Beyond weather, borrowing costs for homebuyers have climbed since mid-2013. The average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 4.28 percent in the week ended Feb. 13, up from 3.35 percent in May last year, according to data from Freddie Mac in McLean, Va.

At the same time, some builders, such as Atlanta-based Beazer Homes USA Inc. (NYSE: BZH), remain upbeat about the outlook for demand.

“While housing isn’t the screaming bargain that it was a year ago, it is still highly affordable in relation to household incomes and to alternative rental payment,” Chief Executive Officer Allan Merrill said on a Jan. 31 earnings call. “Household formations are occurring, and they drive new construction.”

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