WASHINGTON - Housing starts fell 5.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 654,000 in March from the downwardly-revised 694,000 for February, originally reported as 698,000, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.

It was the second straight fall for housing starts, making the March total the lowest since the October 2011 figure of 628,000.

Building permits climbed 4.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 747,000 in March from the downwardly revised February rate of 715,000, originally reported as 717,000. The March figure represents the highest number of permits since September 2008, when 797,000 permits were authorized. March marked the third consecutive nationwide permit increase.

March housing starts were well below the median 705,000 projected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters, but were 10.3% above the March 2011 rate of 593,000.

Building permits for March were above the median 710,000 projected by the economists and were 30.1% above the March 2011 level of 574,000.

Housing starts experienced growth in the Northeast, which saw a 32.8% increase in starts, but that was more than offset by a 15.9% fall in the South, which is a larger region. The South saw starts fall from 397,000 in February to 334,000 in March.

The building permits increase was led by a surge in the West, which saw permits rise from 145,000 in February to 179,000 in March. That was enough to compensate for a decline in Northeastern permits, which fell from 84,000 in February to 79,000 in March.

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