Construction of new homes plummeted in February, as fierce winter weather froze housing starts in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that builders began construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 897,000 homes in February, a steep 17 percent plunge from January. Housing starts slid 56.5 percent in the Northeast and 37 percent in the Midwest, while falling 18.2 percent in the West and 2.5 percent in the South.

The brutal cold spell across the Northeast and Midwest likely caused construction activity to slow last month. Fewer would-be buyers are touring open houses, while consumers seem intent on using their savings at the gasoline pump to pay down debt instead of spending their gains on big ticket items such as housing.

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