The number of housing starts in the nation fell for the eighth consecutive month in September, dropping to its lowest level since the recession of the early 1980s, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.

Starts dropped about 0.6 percent between August and September, the department said. It is the first time starts have fallen for eight consecutive months since the department began compiling and recording the figures in 1959.

The decline was more pronounced on a year-to-year basis. Housing starts fell 10 percent between September 1989 and last month, dropping from a seasonally adjusted level of 1.26 million to 1.14 million and bringing the figures close to the 1 million level that historically has signaled a housing recession.

Prospects for a housing turnaround, in the Washington area and throughout the United States, do not look bright, according to the Commerce Department's figures. Building permits, the harbinger of housing construction to come, showed an even more marked decline. On a seasonally adjusted basis, housing permits in the country fell 23 percent between September 1989 and September 1990.

"It doesn't look so hot, frankly," said David Seiders, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, who said that the downturn has already led to the loss of about 310,000 construction jobs nationwide. Meanwhile, he said, builders are "clearly suffering a lot of financial distress -- bankruptcies and consolidations."

The Washington area is experiencing a similar downturn. Washington-based Housing Data Reports, a real estate information service, said last week that overall sales of new homes in the area dropped significantly in the first eight months compared with the year-earlier period.

Single-family and town house sales fell most sharply, dropping 36 percent in the first eight months compared with the same period in 1989. Condominium sales fell 15 percent.

The Commerce Department figures indicate that the country continues to show strong regional variations in the performance of housing markets. Housing starts and building permits remained relatively steady in the Midwest, versus year-ago figures, but declined in both the South and West.

Hardest hit, however, was the Northeast, where the number of housing starts fell 34 percent in September 1990 from the previous September, and building permits dropped 38 percent.

"The Northeast is dead and this market {the Washington area} isn't far behind," said economist Robert Sheehan of Regis Sheehan Associates in McLean.

Seiders said housing starts in the Northeast have now fallen below the levels experienced in the 1981-1982 recession.

The Commerce Department figures, Seiders noted, indicate that the part of the market that is showing the greatest slowdown is multifamily construction -- apartments and condominiums.

Seiders said that market has been hit hard by overbuilding, stagnant rents, the recent lending slowdown and the flip-flop in federal tax policies between 1981 and 1986 that made investments in apartments less favorable. Apartment builders have also been immobilized by long-delayed handicapped accessibility guidelines that left builders in limbo over appropriate construction standards, he said.

The multifamily construction market, Seiders said, is in "what we would call deep recession conditions."