Home builders are a little less confident than they were a month ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The trade group's Housing Market Index, released last week, fell 1 point, to 58, in October-still a favorable level. It has fluctuated from 55 to 59 since March.

A rating of 50 means that builders in the survey are evenly divided between those who like market conditions and those who don't.

The survey quizzes builders on present single-family sales, six-month sales prospects, and traffic volume of prospective buyers.

The association reported present sales at 63 on the index, unchanged from the 1997 high reached in September.

Builders said sales prospects for the next six months and traffic volume had diminished since September.

Separately, the Commerce Department reported Friday that housing starts in September rose 7.9%, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.5 million units, after falling in July and August.

"The rebound is consistent with the fact that the housing market index has been positive for some time," said Michael Carliner, staff vice president of economics at the National Association of Home Builders.

He said the trade group expects housing sales to slow in the current quarter. "Probably we'll see a little bit of a slowdown in starts as well, though with inventories so low and with sales so strong relative to starts, I don't expect to see much of a slowdown in housing starts," he added.

The September increase followed revised decreases in August and July of 5.1% and 2.5%, respectively. The August and July declines had previously been reported as 4.8% and 4.7% respectively.

Starts of single-family homes rose 6.9%, to an annualized rate of 1,170,000. Construction of buildings with two to four dwelling units rose 2.6%, to an annualized rate of 39,000, and starts on apartment buildings with five or more units rose 12.8%, to an annualized rate of 291,000.

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