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Home builders share the shakes

Worried about a war, a weak economy and a job market that shows no signs of improving any time soon, the nation's home builders have grown increasingly jittery, and their confidence level has fallen to its lowest level since November 2001.

The National Association of Home Builders Housing Market Index, a monthly barometer of builder sentiment, tumbled 10 points in March to a reading of 52, a drop of more than 16 percent.

"Even as the lowest mortgage rates in decades continue to support new-home sales, builders are understandably concerned about continued economic weakness, the situation in Iraq and the anticipated effects of these developments on consumer behavior," said Kent Conine, NAHB president.

In the monthly canvass, builders are asked to rate the current level of sales of single-family homes; their expectations for the next six months; and the traffic rate of prospective buyers. All three gauges declined in March, the current sales index falling by 10 points, and six-month expectations dropping by nine.

"Builder confidence took a substantial hit during this month, but there is certainly no sense of panic among single-family builders — particularly in view of the support being provided by falling mortgage rates and still-healthy appreciation of house values. It's more a sense of needing to be cautious heading forward," said NAHB chief economist David Seiders.

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