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Housing numbers paint blurry picture

WASHINGTON — With interest rates inching up, higher gas prices settling in and the employment outlook still obscured, the nation's housing market remained unsettled during February, sending out mixed signals for a third straight month.

The highly volatile gauge of expensive new homes advanced 9.4 percent during February, recovering from a slide of 8.6 percent the month before. But the other two key indicators — existing home sales and housing starts — both sputtered, stuck in neutral.

The key gauge of lower-cost existing home sales, often starter homes or second homes, slipped 0.4 percent, to a seasonally adjusted level of 6.8 million units. Housing starts, the most forward-looking barometer, lost some steam during February, edging up just 0.5, weakening after a solid 6.2 percent increase the month before.

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