Housing starts in December fell to their lowest level since 1991 as the credit crunch and slowdown in sales continued to hobble the industry, according to a report released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Privately owned units authorized by building permits in December dropped to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.06 million, down 8.1 percent from the previous month and 34.4 percent from the December 2006 estimate of 1.63 million. The seasonally adjusted annual rate is a projection of a monthly total over a 12-month period, adjusted for seasonal fluctuations in building activity.

For single-family units only, building permits issued sank 10.1 percent between November and December, to a rate of 692,000 — November permits had a rate of 770,000. Authorizations of units in buildings with five units or more were at a rate of 322,000 in December.

For all of 2007, total building permits authorized for single-family and multiunit dwellings were down 25.3 percent from 2006 levels, falling from an estimated 1.83 million to 1.37 million.

Housing starts were off 14.2 percent between November and December, falling from a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.17 million to just over 1 million. Compared to December 2006, last month’s starts were down 38.2 percent from a rate of 1.63 million units.

For single-family starts only, the December rate of 794,000 dropped below November’s 818,000-unit rate by 2.9 percent, while the December rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 196,000.

For all of 2007, total housing units started registered a rate of 1.35 million, 24.8 percent below the 2006 figure of 1.8 million.

At a seasonally adjusted rate of 1.3 million, December’s privately owned housing completions were 7.7 percent lower than November’s estimate of 1.41 million and were down 31 percent from the year-ago rate of 1.88 million.

Last month’s single-family housing completions were at a rate of just over 1 million, down 12 percent from November’s 1.14 million, while the rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 278,000.

For 2007, an estimated 1.5 million housing units were completed, which is 24.2 percent below the 2006 figure of 1.97 million.

The Census Bureau and HUD noted that month-to-month changes in seasonally adjusted statistics can show irregular movements, and it can take three months to establish an underlying trend for building permit authorizations, four months for total starts, and six months for total completions. Statistics are estimated from sample surveys and are subject to sampling variability and nonsampling error.

On average, the preliminary seasonally adjusted estimates of total building permits, housing starts and housing completions are revised about 1 percent, the agencies reported.


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