Improvement in the real estate market slowed during the winter, government analysts said Wednesday in reporting their weakest assessment since late 1992.

A nationwide survey of 333 examiners and liquidators at the four bank and thrift agencies revealed that residential, rather than commercial, real estate took the biggest hit from November through January.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. does this survey every three months and uses the results to create an index.

The composite index for the period ended in January dipped to 60, from 64 last October. The commercial real estate score slipped two points, to 63, while the residential rating fell to 57, from 63, matching its worst reading since the FDIC began the survey in mid-1991.

Any score above 50 means more respondents reported improvement in the markets than reported decline. So while the latest index is positive, the trend is regressive.

"The survey results do not suggest that housing markets are in a downturn - only that they may have leveled off or temporarily stalled," FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer said in a release.

James L. Freund, the FDIC researcher who compiles the survey, warned against overreacting to one quarter's results. "I don't think there is any concern for loan quality from these numbers," he said in an interview.

The FDIC began using the survey five years ago "to get a feel for when markets were topping out," he explained. "In the housing area, the recovery may be maturing or leveling off. I think we have a long way to go in the commercial" market.

In every region of the country, the examiners and liquidators contacted were less positive in January than in October.

The composite score in the Northeast dipped seven points, to 54; the West fell only one point, to 55. The South and Midwest continued to turn in better results, but the index in each region dropped five points, to 63 and 62, respectively.

The West's housing index fell to 50 - the lowest score reported in the survey. The West also had the lowest commercial property score, 62.

Still, the survey found that commercial real estate vacancy rates continued to decline.

"Reports of excess supply have been decreasing steadily for three years," according to the FDIC report, "but reductions have been particularly sharp during the past year."

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