Housing Data a Mixed Bag

While starts slightly beat expectations, they fall sharply from a year ago.
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Updated from 9:46 a.m. EDT

Housing starts and new residential building permits for March slightly beat economists' expectations, but still fell sharply from a year ago.

Starts in the month were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.518 million units, which was 0.8% above the revised February estimate, but 23% below the level a year earlier, the U.S. Commerce Department said. Economists expected 1.5 million starts, according to

Reuters

.

Building permits for new housing, meanwhile, came in at a 1.544 million annual rate, marking a 0.8% rise from the February tally but a 25.9% fall from a year earlier. Economists expected a rate of 1.515 million permits.

"This winter has been really volatile thanks to weather," says Phillip Neuhart, an economic analyst with Wachovia. The March figure looks like it smoothed out the spiky numbers from previous months, he says.

With nasty weather again striking much of the country in April, the starts figures could disappoint next month, Neuhart predicts. He adds that the housing starts number is likely to bottom in the middle of this year, possibly matching or falling below the 1.399 million annual level from January.

Completed single-family homes in March totaled 1.33 million units, 1.5% above February. High inventory levels continue to plague homebuilders like

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get Report

and

Pulte Homes

(PHM) - Get Report

.

The better-than-expected starts and permit numbers sent shares of homebuilders higher early Tuesday. D.R. Horton was up 37 cents, or 1.7%, to $22.05, while Pulte was adding 57 cents, or 2.2%, to $26.67.

Lennar

(LEN) - Get Report

was jumping $1.25, or 3%, to $42.77.