The national media was trumpeting the good news about housing start data released Tuesday morning by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it is not clear exactly what they were cheering about.

October housing starts were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,229,000 which is 3 percent above the revised September estimate of 1,193,000. That is the good news. But single family home construction actually was down 7.3 percent from September to an annualized rate of 884,000 units. It was construction of buildings with five units or more that showed improvement in October, with starts at an annualized rate of 312,000 units - a 46.5 percent increase over the September figure of 213,000. Any improvement in any part of the housing construction sector is certainly welcome, but multi-family construction represents such a small share of total starts that it hard to get too excited.

Overall housing starts in October were running 16.4 percent below October 2006's revised figure of 1,470,000.

Single family construction starts were most improved in the Northeast (up 29.5 percent from September) and the Midwest (an increase of 15.1 percent) but were down 19.5 percent in the South and 8.1 percent in the West.

Permits for privately-owned housing construction were issued in October at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,178,000, a decline of 6.6 percent below the revised September rate of 1,261,000. Permits for October, 2007 were issued at a rate 24.5 percent lower than one year earlier.

Housing completions for the month were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,436,000, 1.9 percent above the revised September estimate of 1,409,000 but 25 percent below the rate one year earlier.

Builders are currently sitting on permits for 1,800,000 units for which construction has not yet begun, 1,054,000 of these are single family houses. In September the number of permits outstanding was 1,900,000 and one year ago it was 2,015,000.