Groundbreaking on homes fell unexpectedly in March but permits for future construction rose to their highest level in 3-1/2 years, giving a mixed message for one of the economy's weaker sectors.
Housing starts slipped 5.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 654,000 units, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.
The long-moribund housing sector has showed signs of an incipient recovery in recent months, and homebuilding could add to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.
Despite the drop in starts, the data suggests housing construction could still add to gross domestic product during the first quarter, said Millan Mulraine, a macro strategist at TD Securities.
But an oversupply of unsold homes is depressing prices, creating a big hurdle for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.
"It's going to be rocky for a while," Miller said, adding the data pointed at best to a tentative recovery.
Some analysts speculated that a mild winter in the United States led homebuilders to start new projects ahead of schedule, and that March's decline amounted to a payback.
"Weather was so mild earlier in the year we might have pulled some of the starts forward," said Mark Foster, who helps manage $500 million at Kirr Marbach & Co in Columbus, Indiana.
"But the trend looks good, it feels like the housing market is trying to form a bottom."
February's starts were revised down to a 694,000-unit pace from a previously reported 698,000 unit rate.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts little changed at a 705,000-unit rate.
Stock futures pared gains after the data was published, while prices on government debt trimmed losses.
March's decline in housing starts was the biggest percentage drop since April of last year, although most of the fall was in the volatile multi-unit category, which declined 16.9 percent.
Starts for single-family homes eased 0.2 percent.
And brightening the report's message on the economy, new permits for home construction surged.
Permits rose 4.5 percent to a 747,000-unit pace last month, the highest since September 2008 and beating economists' expectations for a 710,000-unit pace.
"The rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data," said Omer Esiner, a market analyst at Commonwealth Foreign Exchange in Washington.
Sentiment among home builders ebbed in April for the first time in seven months, a survey showed on Monday.