If you've been out recently hunting for a house or apartment, this news shouldn't surprise you: Builders took out fewer permits for single-family houses in the first six months of this year compared with last year and more permits to build multifamily housing.

In a further sign of the major correction that the Washington real estate market is undergoing after the go-go years of the late 1980s, building permits for single-family homes fell 20 percent in the first half of 1990, according to the consulting firm Regis J. Sheehan & Associates.

In all, 9,721 permits were issued to build single-family houses, including town houses, compared with 12,072 permits issued in the first six months of 1989.

Sheehan blamed the fall-off on the oversupply of expensive homes in the area, as well as defense contractor cutbacks and the recent credit crunch that has made it tougher for builders to receive construction financing.

Permits for multifamily construction, on the other hand, increased 69 percent, from 3,924 units in the first half of last year to 6,614. In Montgomery County alone, multifamily building permits almost tripled, to 2,917 from 989 in the six-month comparisons.

Most of the increase came from the large amount of permits issued in January as builders scrambled to beat a federal deadline for obtaining the permits without having to design apartments so they are accessible to the handicapped, Sheehan said. Without that factor, "multifamily {construction} probably was essentially flat," Sheehan said.

Lynne Hansen, senior vice president of Hazel/Peterson Cos., which develops condominiums and apartments, said the increase in multifamily permits in the first six months was also caused by builders who missed the January deadline but took out permits anyway, aiming to finish as many apartment units as possible by March 13, 1991.

Units finished by that date will also be exempt from the requirements that they be accessible to the handicapped, as mandated by the Fair Housing Act of 1988.

"You're going to see a big fall-off in permits from now on," Hansen said.

Overall, the Washington area produced a total of 16,335 permits in the first six months of 1990, up 2 percent from 15,996 in the first half of 1989. As such, it had the second highest housing permit total in the nation, behind Riverside-San Bernardino in Southern California.

The Washington area bumped the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, where defense cuts have taken the steam out of the once-hot housing market, back to third place.

"In the single-family market {in the Washington area}, there's no question that the game is over ... and we're going through a correction," Sheehan said. "But that's all relative. We're still the second-largest housing market in the country."

Single-family housing permits dropped 39 percent in the Virginia suburbs, while the total was relatively unchanged in the Maryland suburbs. The small District of Columbia total increased modestly.

Sheehan blamed the big drop-off in the Virginia suburbs on cutbacks by defense contractors as well on as the looser controls on development that led to overbuilding of expensive single-family homes in the region in past years.

Maryland has not been as affected by defense cutbacks, and stricter development controls tempered the development boom of the last decade, Sheehan said.

"In Virginia, we're keeping a tight rein on starts," said Lisa Benjamin, director of marketing for the Milton Co. "We really have hardly any standing inventory."

The Washington area market, Sheehan said, "had to go through a major correction. It still has some attraction, but we're not going to go back to the levels that we had in the second half of the '80S."

"That's not a crisis," he added. "There had to be an adjustment. We're not going to become a Northeast or a Texas, where the bottom fell out of the market."