Construction of new homes rose in February to the highest level in five months, but applications for new construction were weak for a third month.

In this Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, photo, a "Sold" sign sits in front of a house under the final stages of construction in Plano, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Housing starts rose 5.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.18 million units, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Construction had fallen in January in December, declines that had been blamed in part on winter weather.

Applications for building permits, a gauge of future activity, fell 3.1 percent to an annual rate of 1.17 million units after a flat reading in January and a drop in December.

The decline in building permits, unless reversed, could signal future trouble in an industry that was a bright spot for the economy last year.

For February, construction of single-family homes rose 7.2 percent to an annual rate of 822,000 units. Construction in the smaller apartment sector edged up a slight 0.8 percent to a rate of 356,000 units.

Regionally, construction activity plunged 51.3 percent in the Northeast but showed strength in all other regions. Construction rose 19.9 percent in the Midwest, 7.1 percent in the South and 26.1 percent in the West.

The National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index held steady at 58 for March. Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor.

Sales of new homes surged 14.5 percent last year to 501,000, marking the strongest year for this segment of the housing market since 2007.

Economists are forecasting another good year for housing as strong employment gains led more people to decide to purchase homes. Strength in home construction was a pillar of growth for the economy last year.

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