Housing starts unexpectedly surge

Government report shows construction of new homes jumped 22% in February.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Initial construction of U.S. homes unexpectedly surged in February, after falling for eight months, according to a government report released Tuesday.

Housing starts rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 583,000 last month, up 22% from a revised 477,000 in January, according to the Commerce Department. It was the first time housing starts increased since June, when they rose 11%.

Economists were expecting housing starts to decline to 450,000, according to consensus estimates compiled by Briefing.com. Still, starts are down more than 47% from February 2008, when over 1.1 million new homes broke ground.

New construction of single-family homes, considered the core of the housing market, increased 1.1% to an annual rate of 357,000 versus 353,000 in January.

February's increase was driven by a nearly 80% increase in construction of multi-family homes. New construction of buildings with 5 or more units increased surged 80% to 212,000 from 118,000 in January.

Applications for building permits, considered a reliable sign of future construction activity, rose 3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 547,000 last month. Economists were expecting permits to fall to 500,000.

While the surge in new construction was a welcome sign for the nation's battered housing market, analysts warned that the increase could be short lived.

"With new home sales still falling and the months' supply at a record, there is no reason for homebuilding to rise," wrote Ian Sheperdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in a research note. "This is a temporary rebound, not a recovery."

New home construction surged in the Northeast, jumping nearly 89% last month. Starts also increased in the Midwest and the South.

In the West, where the housing market was overbuilt in the boom years and where there is a glut of foreclosed homes, starts declined nearly 25% versus the previous month.