The pace of U.S. home construction rose 0.8 percent in March to a rate that beat analysts' predictions but the rise was well below the previous month's increase and the rate was sharply off the year-ago figure, a government report showed on Tuesday.

The Commerce Department said housing starts set an annual pace of 1.518 million units in March compared with a 1.506 million unit pace in February. Economists had forecast March housing starts to drop to a 1.495 million unit pace from February's originally reported 1.525 million units.

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Building permits, which signal future construction plans, also rose 0.8 percent to a 1.544 million unit pace. Economists were expecting building permits to register a 1.510 million unit pace, down from the 1.532 million in February.

Last month's permits figure was off 25.9 percent from the March 2006 pace of 2.085 million units.

Meanwhile, housing completions were off 25.9 percent in March from a year ago at a 1.632 million unit pace — the biggest percentage decline since June 1982.

The middling housing data comes a day after a private survey of homebuilders showed that they took a gloomy view of the market in April.

The National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index dropped to 33 this month from 36 in March. That was the second consecutive monthly fall and its lowest since December when it also came in at 33.

Readings below 50 indicate more builders view market conditions as poor rather than favorable.

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