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RISMEDIA, January 26, 2010—(MCT)—Brutal winter weather drove housing starts in the U.S. down in December 2009, but the South and the West fared better than the chillier Midwest and Northeast.

December starts were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 557,000, a 4% decline from a revised November estimate of 580,000, the Commerce Department recently reported. The figure was 0.2% above the December 2008 rate of 556,000.

But another key indicator in the government data showed some signs of improvement for the construction industry. The number of housing permits—which are less susceptible to weather changes—increased 10.9% to 653,000 from the revised November rate of 589,000 and is 15.8% above the December 2008 estimate of 564,000.

The number of single-family homes authorized in December was up 8.3%, at 508,000.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently said he was optimistic about the report and the outlook for housing in 2010, given low interest rates and a home buying tax credit offered to first-time buyers and certain homeowners through April 2010.

“Despite the mixed performance at year-end, conditions remain favorable for growth in the coming months,” he said in a statement. “Mortgage rates remain relatively low, and the expanded home buyers’ tax credit provides buyers with attractive opportunities in the coming months.”

“Will weather pull the numbers back up in January? So far, with unusually cold weather in the South, and rain in California, the answer appears to be no,” Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, wrote in a note to clients recently. “A bounce-back in February, though, is likely.”

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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