(Bloomberg) -- New U.S. home construction fell in January for the first time in four months, indicating pandemic-related labor absences tempered recent progress on building activity.

Residential starts dropped 4.1% last month to a 1.64 million annualized rate, according to government data released Thursday. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 1.7 million pace. Applications to build, a proxy for future construction, rose to an annualized 1.9 million units.

High materials costs and difficulty attracting skilled labor remain headwinds for builders, inhibiting new construction and aggravating home shortages across markets. Moreover, sky-high prices and the recent rise in mortgage rates risk hampering affordability. 

A recent survey showed a record-low 25% of Americans said now is a good time to purchase a house.

At the same time, the increase in building permits and a pickup in the number of homes authorized but not yet started suggests residential construction will remain healthy in coming months.

Single-family starts declined 5.6% in January to an annualized pace of 1.12 million units as multifamily starts -- which tend to be volatile and include apartment buildings and condominiums -- decreased to 522,000. 

The number of one-family homes authorized for construction but not yet started climbed 5.6% to 151,000 in January, one of the highest levels in 15 years.

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