The rate of single-family housing starts and building permits issued dropped to the lowest level in 17 years in January, the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today.

The seasonally adjusted annual rate of single-family housing starts and building permits issued fell for the 10th consecutive month in January, according to the report. The rate of single-family housing starts was 743,000 in January, the lowest since 604,000 in January 1991. And the rate of single-family building permits was 673,000 in January, the lowest level since 587,000 in January 1991.

This rate is a projection of a monthly total projected over a 12-month period, adjusted to account for seasonal fluctuations in construction activity.

Single-family building permits issued dropped to a January rate that was about 40.3 percent below the rate for the same month last year, while the rate of single-family starts in January was about 33.8 below the January 2007 rate.

“Builders continue to do what they need to do to reduce the inventory of units on the market, both by limiting new production and pulling fewer permits for new homes,” said Sandy Dunn, president of the National Association of Home Builders, in a statement.

On Tuesday, NAHB reported that a market index that tracks builder confidence was at a near-record low in January. The index, based on a survey of builders’ feedback about current and expected market conditions, was 20 in January — an index score of 50 represents a “fair” market — with an equal number of builders rating conditions as “good” and “poor,” while a score below 50 indicates more builders view conditions as “poor.”

The rate of total building residential building permit activity in January, including single-family homes and structures with two or more units, dropped for the eighth consecutive month and fell about 33.1 percent compared to January 2007, and the rate of total housing starts in January 2008 was about 27.9 percent lower than the January 2007 rate.

Total building permits issued hit a rate of 1.05 million in January, and housing starts hit a rate of 1.01 million.

Regionally, the rate of total building permits dropped about 46.7 percent in the West, 31.2 percent in the Northeast, 30.5 percent in the Midwest and 27.5 percent in the South in January compared to January 2007. And the rate of total housing starts dropped about 39.6 percent in the West, 33 percent in the Northeast, 24.2 percent in the South and 16.3 percent in the Midwest.

There were an estimated 181,600 new housing units authorized but not yet started at the end of January, down 9.1 percent from January 2007.

The rate of housing units under construction at the end of January was 1.04 million, down 14.7 percent compared to January 2007. And the rate of new homes completed was 1.35 million in January, down about 26.2 percent compared to January 2007.

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