Housing starts took an unexpected turn downward in February as new construction of buildings with five units or more fell by 43.1% from January and 71.6% from the same month last year, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.

Overall, starts fell 5.9% sequentially to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 611,000 but remained 0.2% above February, 2009. Single-family starts were stable by comparison, down only 0.6% from January and up 39.8% from February last year. The big drop came in multifamily, which fell to a rate of 58,000 from 102,000 in January.

Regionally, the data were widely mixed. Compared to January, the Northeast was down 9.6% overall and 14% for single-family; the Midwest was up 10.6% and 20.8%, respectively; the South was down 15.5% and 5.7% and the West was up 7.9% and 3.8%. Compared to last February, the Northeast was up 6.5% overall and 32.4% for single-family; the Midwest up11.8% and 72.2%, respectively; the South down 12.4% and up 21.0% and the West up 21.2% and 78.7%.

Building permits also fell, although by less than starts. Permits in February fell 1.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 612,000, also driven by multifamily, which was off 10.1% from January and down 41.4% from February, 2009. Single-family permits fell only 0.2% to a rate of 503,000.Regionally, on a sequential basis, permits in the Northeast were flat overall but up 11.8% for single-family; up 11.7% and 13.3%, respectively, in the Midwest; down 5.8% and 6.7% in the South and down 2.1% but up 0.9% in the West.

Housing completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 700,000, 5.4% above the revised January estimate of 664,000 but 15.5% below February, 2009. Single-family completions rose 4.3% to a rate of 458,000, 14.2% below the same month a year ago.