* Net operating profit $43.7 mln vs $26.7 mln year ago
* Pays special dividend of $0.28
* U.S. housing market improving but "volatile"
SYDNEY, Feb 28 (Reuters) - James Hardie Industries Plc , the world's biggest fibre cement products maker, said on Friday it would pay a special dividend to investors as it booked a 64 percent rise in third-quarter profit thanks to the stronger U.S. housing market.
The dual Australia and U.S.-listed company, which earns two-thirds of its revenue in the United States and Europe, said it benefited from an 11 percent rise in U.S. housing starts in the three months to December 31, compared with the previous year.
Net operating profit of $43.7 million for the quarter compared with $26.7 million the previous year. Net operating profit excludes charges for a compensation fund set up to pay asbestos claims, asset impairments and regulatory charges.
The company said the improving housing market and its strong market position pushed up quarterly sales by 17 percent. But it warned "market conditions remain somewhat uncertain and some input costs remain volatile".
Still, it said it expected full-year net operating profit in the $190-$200 million range, in line with analysts' forecasts.
The company said it would pay a special dividend of $0.28 per share, on top of the $0.08 interim dividend it announced in November.
James Hardie's Australian-listed shares were up 5 percent in early trading, having risen 58 percent in the past year as the company reported a gradual improvement in the housing market.