Builders have taken out fewer permits for new homes in the Washington area this year than last, which could be an early hint that they see the housing boom losing some of its momentum.

According to the Census Bureau, local jurisdictions issued 22,149 permits for construction of new houses and residential units in the first seven months of 2004. In the same period of 2003, jurisdictions issued 24,426 permits. The 9.6 percent drop could indicate a bit more caution among residential developers after five consecutive boom years for home values -- and, as a result, for homebuilders' bottom lines. It is worth noting, though, that the 2004 pace of housing values is still a near-record.

Data on housing permits can vary wildly by month. For example, local governments issued 1,233 more permits in April 2004 than a year earlier, but 1,310 fewer in June. In July, the number barely changed from last year, with an extra 42 housing permits issued.

There are other ways to interpret the data, though. Many builders think they are limited less by the state of the housing market than by development restrictions by local counties. So an alternate interpretation of the mild slump is that county governments have been more restrictive in their zoning so far this year than last.

Some anecdotal reports suggest a slowing in the sale market for housing in August, though it is hard to distinguish an ordinary slowing of deal volume, as people go on vacation, from a real shift in the market. The real test will come now, with the onset of the fall selling season -- as developers and homeowners alike wonder whether the bull run in housing will continue.

-- Neil Irwin