Fewer Americans filed for home loans last week as the coronavirus hit, according to industry data released Wednesday, in the latest disruption caused by the pandemic that's transformed the US economy.

That could have implications for a US housing market that was steaming hot before the virus hit, with government data for February showed homebuilding continued at a solid pace, sharply higher than a year ago.

Mortgage applications for the week ending on March 13 fell by 8.4 percent, seasonally adjusted, compared to the week earlier, while refinancing decreased 10 percent, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

"The ongoing situation around the coronavirus led to further stress in the financial markets late last week, with unprecedented volatility and widening spreads," said Joel Kan, MBA vice president of economic and industry forecasting.

That data was compiled before the US Federal Reserve slashed its key lending rate to zero at an emergency meeting Sunday to help cushion the blow from the pandemic which is causing the economy to come to a screeching halt.

Kan said the rate cut "should help to bring down mortgage rates in the coming weeks, spurring more refinancing."

US homebuilding remains strong, but the coronavirus outbreak has already caused mortgage applications to drop
Stock photo of home building. AFP / Frederic J. BROWN

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau said housing construction started last month slowed less than expected compared to January, dropping 1.5 percent to 1.6 million compared to January, whose numbers saw an upward revision. That rate was 39.2 percent above February 2019.

Single-family housing starts were still strong, climbing 6.7 percent above January to 1.1 million.

Permits for new construction -- a sign of housing in the pipeline and a less erratic indicator -- fell 5.5 percent, though single-family homes posted an increase there, too.

"Starts have been lifted in recent months by the much milder-than-usual winter weather, which persisted through February," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics, adding that the rise in single-family permits is the 10th straight month of gains, thanks to strong home sales.

But he expects to see a correction in next month's data as weather normalizes and the virus takes hold.

Though the sector may not be as badly affected as other consumer-dependent areas, "the next few months will be very rough," Shepherdson said.