The Commerce Department's Census Bureau this morning (March 18) reported that housing starts fell in February after rising in January, although the rate of decline was only 0.6%.

Single-family starts, however, fell 6.7% from January, which was down 5.2%, to an annual pace of 707,000, down from an upwardly revised 758,000 in January. Overall starts are pacing 28.4% below February 2007 and single family starts 40.5% below the same month last year.

Portending further contraction in the new housing market were the permit figures, which showed a 7.8% drop from January to a rate of 1.06 million, 36.5% below February 2007. Single family permits fell 6.2% to a rate of 639,000, a 41.9% drop from February 2007.

Completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,208,000, 8.8% below January and 25.8% below February 2007. Single-family completions were down 9.4% to 903,000, 30.6% below the same month a year ago.

Regionally, on a sequential basis, single-family starts fell 42.3% in the Northeast, 11.5% in the Midwest, and 7.0% in the South, but rose 30.6% in the West. On a year-over-year basis, single-family starts were down across the board, by 28.9% in the Northeast, 25.0% in the Midwest, 42.5% in the South and 46.9% in the West.

Single-family permits, sequentially, fell 8.6% in the Northeast, 18.1% in the Midwest, and 4.4% in the South, but rose 0.8% in the West. Year-over-year, single-family permits were down 20% in the Northeast, 36.2% in the Midwest, 40.7% in the South and 53.4% in the West.