(Housing starts story updated for losses in homebuilding stocks)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (

TheStreet

) -- Housing starts were up in March by an unexpected level -- in fact, to the highest level since November 2008. Building permits issued in March reached a level not seen in 17 months.

The latest housing starts and building permits data from the Commerce Department, released on Friday morning, adds another brushstroke to the mixed signals that the U.S. housing market continues to send about its pace of recovery. On Thursday, March foreclosure data released by RealtyTrac reached a five-year high.

Some shares of the homebuilding stocks, which had rallied earlier in the week, edged down on the Thursday foreclosure data and were continuing to slide on Friday morning, even amid the brighter data from the Commerce Department.

Housing starts rose 1.6% to a seasonally adjusted rate of 626,000 units in March.

New building permits spiked by 7.5% in March, the highest level since October 2008.

Homebuilder sentiment has risen upon exiting the slow winter season, and heading into what is expected to be a rush of home-buying ahead of the expiration of the federal first-time home buyer tax credit at the end of April.

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get Report

and

Lennar

(LEN) - Get Report

were down by more than 3% on Friday morning.

Lennar was taken down from outperform to market perform by Raymond James on Friday.

Ryland Group

(RYL)

, which priced a $300 million senior note deal on Friday morning, was leading losses in the homebuilder sector, down by more than 4% on Friday morning.

M.D.C. Holdings

(MDC) - Get Report

was also down, by close to 4%.

The only major homebuilder managing a positive gain on Friday was

NVR

(NVR) - Get Report

, which earlier in the week announced an offer to acquire the assets of embattled homebuilder

Orleans Homebuilders

( OHB).

NVR had been the only homebuilder whose profitability was virtually immune from the housing market crash.

-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York.

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