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U.S. housing starts fall, but still at lofty levels

A worker walks on the roof of a new home under construction in Carlsbad, California September 22, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - U.S. housing starts fell in January as ground breaking for single-family projects slipped

off a 6-1/2-year peak, but stayed at levels consistent with a

gradually improving housing market.

Groundbreaking declined 2.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.07 million units, the Commerce Department said on Wednesday. Decembers' starts were barely revised at a 1.09 million-unit pace and January's reading was in line with Wall

Street's expectations.

Starts have now been above the one million-unit mark for five straight months. Compared to January last year, groundbreaking was up 18.7 percent.

Sluggish wage growth and a shortage of homes on the market stymied housing last year, even as the broader economy was accelerating.

But a turnaround in housing is expected this year as a rapidly tightening labor market pushes up wages and encourages more young adults to move out of their parents' basements and set up their own homes.

Already in the fourth quarter, household formation was accelerating, breaking above the one-million mark that usually is associated with a fairly healthy housing market.

Although much of the gain in households went into rentals, that would still be a boost to housing starts this year.

Single-family homes groundbreaking, the largest part of the market, dropped 6.7 percent to a 678,000-unit pace. Starts in this segment had hit their highest level since early 2008 in December.

Projects in the Northeast, which was slammed by a storm during the month, dipped 3.5 percent, with all the drag coming from the multi-family segment.

Groundbreaking in the volatile multi-family homes segment rose 7.5 percent to a 360,000-unit pace. With the rental vacancies at their lowest level in more than two decades,

multi-family starts are likely to push higher this year.

In January, permits for future home construction dipped 0.7 percent to a 1.05 million-unit pace. Permits have been above a 1 million-unit pace since July.

Single-family permits fell 3.1 percent last month.

Multi-family permits rose 3.6 percent after tumbling 5.2 percent in December.

((Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci))