Housing starts came in stronger than expected in February, but still fell from recent highs, the U.S. Department of Commerce said Thursday.

Housing starts in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.12 million, down 7.9% from the revised January estimate of 2.3 million and down 4.8% from a year ago. Economists expected 2.03 million starts.

"This is a strong number by historical standards. Anyone looking for fodder that housing is not dead yet can certainly use a number like this," says Phillip Neuhart, a Wachovia economic analyst.

But at the same time, the year-over-year drop shows "housing is continuing to decelerate, and housing starts will eventually follow the stronger deceleration we have seen in new and existing home sales," Neuhart says.

Compared with a year ago, starts dropped 24.7% in the Midwest, fell 12.1% in the Northeast, and were basically flat in the West. In the South, starts rose 2.3%.

Total residential permits exhibited strength, coming in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.15 million in February, up 2.5% from a year earlier.

Housing completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.02 million, 5.2% above last year.

More from Real Estate

Cities in the U.S. With Really Clean Air

Cities in the U.S. With Really Clean Air

Ranking the Best Mortgage Lenders

Ranking the Best Mortgage Lenders

How Much Are Closing Costs on a New Home Purchase?

How Much Are Closing Costs on a New Home Purchase?

How to Calculate Your Net Worth and Pin Down Your Financial Health

How to Calculate Your Net Worth and Pin Down Your Financial Health

Best Real Estate Markets for Homeowners in the U.S.

Best Real Estate Markets for Homeowners in the U.S.