Housing starts in May hit 1991 low

Construction workers frame a condominium complex in a Denver, Colorado suburb May 16, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. housing starts slid 3.3 percent in May to their lowest level in more than 17 years, while permits for future construction also fell, signaling more weakness ahead for the battered U.S. housing sector.

The Commerce Department on Tuesday said housing starts set an annual pace of 975,000 units in May, the lowest since March 1991. Economists polled before the report were expecting a 980,000 unit rate. The April starts figure was revised downward to 1.008 million from the 1.032 million originally reported.

U.S. stock futures remained positive after the release of housing data and a separate report on the producer price index, which was higher than expected. The U.S. dollar slipped and Treasuries held gains after the data was released.

Building permits fell to an annual rate of 969,000, slightly higher than the 960,000 rate expected by economists.

The housing market has been battered for months by failing mortgages and uncertainty about when the sector might recover. Across the regions, there were some mixed signals about the health of the housing sector.

The Northeast saw a 61.5 percent jump in May housing starts from the previous month while the region set a record low level of housing permits in single-family homes.

Starts were off in all other regions with building down 25 percent in the Midwest, 10.3 percent in the West and 4.4 percent in the South.

Reporting by Patrick Rucker, editing by Neil Stempleman