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US home construction tumbled 4.7 per cent in September

Last Updated Oct 18, 2017 at 11:21 am EST

In this Wednesday, March 1, 2017, photo taken with a fisheye lens, a forklift is parked in front of one of the houses under construction in Zelienople, Pa. On Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, the Commerce Department reports on U.S. home construction in September. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

WASHINGTON – Construction of new homes fell 4.7 per cent in September, the biggest decline in six months, reflecting weakness in both single-family activity and apartment building.

The September result left construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.13 million units, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. It was the sharpest decline since a 7.7 per cent fall in March.

Homebuilding has been sliding this year, but economists remain optimistic that the low level of unemployment will soon spark a rebound in sales and construction. Even though construction activity has fallen in recent months, home building is 6.1 per cent higher than a year ago.

Single-family building contracted 4.6 per cent in September, while apartment construction was down 5.1 per cent.

Construction activity in August declined a revised 0.2 per cent, a slightly smaller drop than initially reported. Damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma did not have a major impact on the August figures.

Application for new building permits, a sign of future activity, dropped 4.5 per cent in September to an annual rate of 1.22 million units.

Even with the decline in construction and permits, analysts found reasons for optimism. Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, noted that permits for single-family construction rose 2.4 per cent even though the overall permit number was held back by a 16.1 per cent plunge for apartment building.

“We’re expecting new home sales to strengthen markedly,” he said in a research note, spurred by potential buyers rushing to close deals before mortgage rates move higher.

A survey released Tuesday showed that homebuilders are feeling more optimistic than they have in months about the future. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index rose 4 points to 68 in October, the highest reading since May. Readings above 50 indicate more builders see conditions as good rather than poor.

A shortage of homes for sale combined with rising prices has translated into an affordability challenge for many would-be buyers.

In September, construction was down in all regions of the country except the West, where construction starts rose 15.7 per cent. Construction fell the most in the Midwest, a drop of 20.2 per cent. Construction was down 9.3 per cent in the South and 9.2 per cent in the Northeast.