Home construction plunged 22.5 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted 479,000 homes, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. It was the lowest level since April 2009 and the second-lowest on records dating back more than a half-century.
The decline followed a surge in highly volatile apartment construction in January, which pushed the overall construction rate up to more than 600,000 units - the fastest rate in 20 months. Still, the building pace has been far below the 1.2 million units a year that economists consider healthy.
Economists say falling prices, sluggish sales and the weak construction rate all point to a housing market that is years away from a recovery.
Single-family homes, which make up roughly 80 percent of home construction, fell 11.8 percent in February. Apartment and condominium construction dropped 47 percent, reversing much of January's gains.
Building permits, an indicator of future construction, fell 8.1 percent last month to the lowest level on records dating back to 1960. Permit requests for single-family homes saw the biggest decline. Apartments and condos remained flat.
Analysts said year-end building code changes in California, Pennsylvania and New York caused an artificial spike for permit requests in December and housing starts in January. Builders in those states rushed to file new permits before those changes went into effect.
The drop in home construction activity was felt coast to coast. It fell 48.6 percent in the Midwest, 37.5 percent in the Northeast, 28 percent in the West and 6.3 percent in the South.
The volatile housing market is weighing on the overall economic recovery. Each new home built creates, on average, the equivalent of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
The trade group said Tuesday that its index of industry sentiment for March improved slightly to 17. That was the first gain in five months after four straight readings of 16. Still, any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market's future. The index hasn't been above that level since April 2006.