Housing starts rose slightly more than expected in November, but a surprise drop in permits for future home construction to a 1-1/2 year low indicated continued weakness in the housing market even as the economic recovery gains traction.
The Commerce Department said on Thursday housing starts rose 3.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 555,000 units. October's starts were revised up to a 534,000-unit pace from the previously reported 1-1/2 year low rate of 519,000 units.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected housing starts to rise to a 550,000-unit rate.
Despite last month's pick-up in residential construction, housing remains weak as a 9.8 percent unemployment rate weighs on demand and homeowners' ability to hang on to their properties, lagging an acceleration in broader economic activity.
A survey on Wednesday showed sentiment among home builders was mired at record low levels this month, suggesting residential construction will again be a drag on gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter.
New building permits fell 4.0 percent to a 530,000-unit pace last month, the lowest since April 2009, after a 0.9 percent increase in October. Permits were dragged down by a 23 percent plunge in the volatile multi-family segment. Permits for single-family homes rose 3 percent last month.
Analysts had expected overall building permits to rise to a 560,000-unit pace in November.
Groundbreaking last month was lifted by a 6.9 percent rise in single-family home construction. Starts for the multi-family segment, however, fell 9.1 percent. New home completions tumbled 14.1 percent to a record low 513,000 units in November.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)