Housing permits were up 4.5% in March thanks to a 20.8% surge in multifamily activity, according to data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The reading, registering an annual rate of 747,000, was the highest the industry has seen since September 2008 and is 30.1% higher year-over-year. Multifamily alone reached an annual rate of 285,000.

News wasn’t as good for single-family housing, however, which saw a decline of 3.5% on a monthly basis to an annual rate of 462,000.

Starts also had a poor showing, coming in 5.8% lower on a monthly basis, although still up 10.3% annually. Single-family activity was nearly flat with a small downward tick of 0.2%, but multifamily activity fell 19.8%. Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, however, says Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, pointing out that, with a margin of error of +/- 15.6%, the reported decline "could also be a measurement error."

Overall, the report’s good news outweighed the bad, Newport said in a statement discussing the numbers today. "The report shows further signs of life in the housing market, but mostly in the multifamily category. What remains unclear is the state of the single-family market … . One head scratcher is why single-family permits and starts and builder sentiment have improved over the past five months when new-home sales remain depressed. If the builders have gotten ahead of the game, single-family construction will go through a demoralizing slowdown later this year."

To read the full release discussing today’s starts and permits report, click here.

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.