WASHINGTON - Housing construction starts nationwide unexpectedly increased in January as work on apartments and other multifamily homes surged and permits for new projects rose to the highest level in a year, according to government figures released Wednesday.Housing starts increased 1.5% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.775 million units after rising to a rate of 1.748 million in December, the Commerce Department said. Analysts expected January starts to fall to 1.644 million units at an annual pace.

"Nothing can take away from the simple fact that housing activity is robust and is showing no signs of fading," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa. The increase in permits "makes it clear that higher rates notwithstanding, new-home construction will continue at a breakneck pace for several months to come."

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