LAS VEGAS, Jan. 21, 2003 (Hanley-Wood News Service) - The latest edition of the International Builders' Show opened today at the Las Vegas Convention Center amid glowing reports on 2002 housing starts.

Government reports of December's 5-percent increase in housing starts put a collective smile on show attendees as they flowed into the convention center for the annual event.

An expected 75,000 home builders and building product manufacturers from 90 countries, occupying 20,000 rooms in Las Vegas, will tour the 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, view products from 1,000 manufacturers and suppliers, attend nearly 200 educational seminars and thousands of ad hoc sales meeting, view dozens of show homes -- and take part in an uncountable number of parties throughout this party city.

Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn greeted builders at the show's opening ceremony at the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts this morning. the Las Vegas metro area, one of the nation's hottest housing markets with 1.43 million residents in 2000, is growing at a rate of 7,000 new residents per month. They have to live somewhere, and local builders are more than happy to accommodate them.

Builders hope 2003 will continue 2002's torrid pace in Las Vegas and beyond. The government statistics released Tuesday put starts at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.70 million, up 6.4 percent from 2001, and the best year for home builders since 1986.

NAHB'S annual housing forecast, a fixture on the first day of the show, called for a total of 942,000 new-home sales in 2003 -- down 3.4 percent from last year, but still a healthy number for home builders.

Starts should fall to 1.63 million, down 3.5 percent from 2002, the NAHB predicted. That figure includes some 322,000 multifamily starts and 1.31 million single-family units.

"Even though the totals will be down a bit, in historical context, they're excellent numbers," NAHB Chief Economist David F. Seiders said in a statement.

Builder confidence is strong as 2003 begins. NAHB's Housing Market Index dipped to 64 in January, down a single point from December 2002's two-year high of 65. The HMI is based on a survey asking builders to rate current sales, sales expectations in the next six months, and traffic of prospective buyers. A composite score over 50 indicates that more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor.

BUILDER Online's on-site coverage of the 2003 International Builders' Show continues through Friday, the final day of the show.