Housing starts and permits last month recovered a bit from their swoon in February but still remain well behind last year's tax-credit fueled pace, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Starts in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 549,000, well ahead of the Wall Street consensus estimates of 525,000, a gain of 7.2% from February but still 13.4% below March 2010's rate of 634,000. Single-family starts were up 7.7% to a pace of 422,000, 21.1% behind the 535,000 unit-pace of March, 2010.

Permits, likewise, were up, but not enough to get back to 2010 levels.Permits in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 594,000, 11.2% above the revised February rate of 534,000 but is 13.3% below the March 2010 estimate of 685,000. Single-family permits were at a rate of 405,000, a gain of 5.7 from the revised February figure of 383,000 and 25.3% behind March, 2010.

Housing completions were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 509,000, 14.2% below the revised February estimate of 593,000 and 20.8% below the March 2010 rate of 643,000. Single-family completions were at a rate of 374,000, 22.2% below the revised February rate of 481,000 and 23.5% behind last March.

Regionally, starts were up across the board, with the Midwest leading with a 32.3% increase overall and a 13.6% increase in single-family construction.The West was close behind with a 27.6% gain overall and a 13.7% rise in single-family. The South was down 3.3% overall but up 4.4% in single-family, and the Northeast was up 5.4% and 5.7% respectively.

Permits regionally were also up across the board, led by the West with a 37.1% gain overall and a 5.3% increase in single-family authorizations. The South was up 6.3% and 5.3%, respectively, and the Midwest rose 6.9% overall and 10% for single-family. The Northeast was flat with February overall and up 2.6% in single-family.

Year-to-date through March, starts were running down 9.9% overall and down 21.4% for single family units.

"We believe this continues to point to modestly improving trends in the housing market," wrote Michael Rehaut, home building analyst at J.P. Morgan.