U.S. housing starts in January fell 16.8 percent from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 466,000 units, a record low, according to U.S. Commerce Department figures reported Wednesday.

Compared to a year ago, new-home production declined 56.2 percent, the report found.

"Builders are continuing to exercise extreme caution in response to market conditions, particularly weak consumer demand and the large inventory of homes for sale that is being fueled by a constant flow of foreclosures," said National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chairman Joe Robson in a press statement. "We are certainly optimistic that the newly signed economic stimulus package — and particularly the enhanced first-time homebuyer tax credit — will help spark more consumer demand for homes going forward. However, until that happens, builders have little choice but to put a hold on new construction."

Building permits for new construction dropped 4.8 percent from December to an annual rate of 521,000, also a record low, and plummeted 50.5 percent from a year ago.

Single-family housing starts fell 12.2 percent in January to a record-low seasonally adjusted annual rate of 347,000 units, while multifamily starts fell nearly 28 percent to a rate of 119,000 units — also a record low. Regionally, starts plummeted nearly 43 percent in the Northeast and 29.3 percent in the Midwest. They also fell 12.8 percent in the South and 6.4 percent in the West.

January permit issuance, which can be an indicator of future building activity, declined 8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 335,000 units on the single-family side and 1.6 percent to a rate of 186,000 units on the multifamily side, according to data. Regionally, permits were down 3.3 percent in the Northeast, 2.4 percent in the Midwest, 6.9 percent in the South and 1.8 percent in the West.

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