Completions of privately owned new residential units increased significantly in February after a disappointing January, according to the latest New Residential Construction report released by the U.S. Census. Overall completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 581,000, 13.9 percent above January's revised rate of 510,000.

This increase appears to have been boosted primarily by completions of units in buildings of five or more units (multifamily), which increased 28.9 percent to a rate of 107,000, but single-family completions also increased by a satisfying 11.2 percent to a rate of 468,000 in February—2.9 percent above the completion rate of February 2010.

But permits and starts of single-family and multifamily units dipped in February, with single-family authorizations declining 9.3 percent and single-family starts slipping 11.8 percent below January's rates. February's single-family permits were 27 percent below the same period last year, and starts were 28.8 percent below the rate in February 2010. Multifamily permits declined by only 1.6 percent (13.1 percent above the rate this time last year), but starts dropped by a precipitous 47 percent—yet this was still 54.8 percent above the rate in February 2010.

Residential construction's most recent fluctuations reflect the ongoing instability in housing markets, but industry economists expect conditions to improve enough to allow an overall gain in construction activity this year.

Read more about the past few months' new residential construction data and the implications for housing's recovery.