Mortgage lenders disagreed on whether December's surprising 7.1% uptick in housing starts signaled a rebound in mortgage activity.

In announcing the December data, which brought housing starts for the year to 1.66 million units - up 3% from 1998 - the Commerce Department pointed to unusually mild weather at yearend, confirming some lenders' view that the surge in construction was an anomaly. "The overall housing trend seems to be down," said Patrick M. Feldman, assistant vice president and portfolio manager at Thornburg Mortgage in Santa Fe, N.M.

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