By John S. McClenahen Weather across the U.S. may have been warmer in February than in January, but the rate of housing starts cooled. Privately owned housing starts were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.855 million last month, 4% below the revised January figure of 1.932 million, the U.S. Commerce Department and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development jointly reported on March 16. Economists generally expected a start rate of 1.93 million in February. Starts for single-family housing in February were at a rate of 1.489 million, 4.1% below their January rate; starts for multi-unit buildings were at an annual rate of 336,000, 4% below their January rate. Building permits for privately owned housing units, an indicator of future activity, also declined in February, down 1.5% to an annual rate of 1.903 million. However, UBS Investment Research, New York, found two "encouraging" notes in the data. "First, building permits were above starts; that can be a signal that starts will rebound in subsequent months. Second, housing starts are still running ahead of our forecast that starts would average just 1.75 million in [the first quarter of 2004]."