Housing starts jumped 4.7 percent in July, the government said Tuesday, as builders appeared to focus more on the improving economy than higher mortgage rates.
But the advance was mixed regionally, with new construction up in the Midwest and West but down in the Northeast and South.Nationally, builders broke ground on 1.42 million units at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, the Commerce Department reported. That was up from a 1.35 million rate in June, when starts fell 9.4 percent.
Many analysts had expected just a 2.2 percent gain.
Michael P. Niemira, an economist with Mitsubishi Bank in New York, said higher mortgage rates had caused builders to scale back on their construction plans in June.
Since then, however, "the interest rate shock began to wear off as the `economic improvement effect' overwhelmed it," Niemira wrote in the bank's Weekly Economic Indicator Report.
Thirty-year, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 8.62 percent in July, up from 8.43 percent in June and 8.6 percent in May, according to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. They had dropped to a 25-year low of 6.74 percent last October.
But various indicators have shown the economy improving gradually, offsetting the curbing effects of higher rates. Incomes have been rising, employment growing and consumer confidence climbing.
And, analysts noted, despite their recent rise, rates remain well below the double-digit levels of much of the 1980s.
The economic improvement led many analysts to believe the Federal Reserve was on the verge of nudging short-term interest rates up for the fifth time this year in an attempt to keep inflation under control. Mortgage rates, which averaged 7.14 percent in February when the first Fed move occurred, have followed the short-term advance.
But despite higher rates, starts averaged an annualized 1.44 million in the second quarter, up from 1.37 million in the first, when housing activity was curbed by unusually harsh winter weather.
For the first seven months of this year, starts were 16.3 percent above those of the same period in 1993. Starts totaled 1.29 million in 1993 and many analysts still expect them to total about 1.40 million this year.
Applications for building permits, often a barometer of future activity, also rose in July, up 2.1 percent to a 1.34 million annual rate after falling 3 percent a month earlier.
Single-family starts were up 2.5 percent, to a 1.19 million rate, nearly erasing the 3 percent drop in June. It was the first advance in four months.
Apartment construction, which has been volatile recently, shot up 18.7 percent to a 222,000 rate. Multi-family starts had plunged 35.7 percent a month earlier.
Regionally, total starts jumped 14.1 percent in the Midwest, to a 340,000 rate, and 12.5 percent in the West, to 361,000.
But they fell 10.3 percent in the Northeast, to a 122,000 rate, and 0.7 percent in the South, to 592,000.