Housing construction in the Washington area dropped in October for the seventh straight month, sliding to the lowest level since the recession of 1981-82, according to a report on building permits issued this week.

Builders obtained 19 percent fewer permits in October this year than in the same month of 1989, the report showed.

The October decline also marked the seventh month in a row that the number of new permits issued was down when compared with the same months in 1989, according to the report by economist Robert Sheehan.

Permits issued to construction companies by local governments are an early indication of building plans and of how home builders view the housing market's health.

The October figures represent an annual rate of about 18,300 permits, the lowest in nine years. The annual rate is the total that would be issued in a year if the same number of permits was taken out every month.

Despite the sharp downturn, this year's total number of permits is expected to reach 24,500 because of a higher level of construction earlier this year.

The total predicted for all 1990, however, is nearly half the pace of building in the most recent peak year of 1987.

A general perception among builders and potential home buyers "that things are bad and they're not getting better" is a big factor in decisions to scale back construction, although the downturn is relatively modest so far, said Sheehan, vice president of Regis J. Sheehan & Associates in McLean.

Builders also are having trouble obtaining construction loans because of new banking regulations, he said.

"I don't see a turnaround until spring," Sheehan said. For a "sustained, perceptible upturn" in residential building the Washington area will have to wait until 1992 or 1993, he predicted.

The total number of permits taken out during the first 10 months of this year totaled 26 percent less than the number issued during the same period in 1989, according to the report.

Local governments in the metropolitan area issued a total of 1,533 single-family and multifamily housing permits in October, a sizable drop from the 1,890 issued in October a year ago.

Permits for single-family homes declined to 1,129 units this year from 1,890 in October last year, and multifamily permits dropped to 404 units from 489 a year ago.

The biggest declines came in the Northern Virginia suburbs, with Fairfax and Prince William counties, Alexandria and Manassas reporting the sharpest cutbacks during the first 10 months of this year.

Throughout Northern Virginia, single-family and multifamily construction dropped by 34 percent when compared with the same period in 1989.

The Maryland suburbs' construction activity in single- and multifamily homes dropped by only 6.3 percent this year from the first 10 months of last year.

An 84 percent decline was reported in the District of Columbia, but these figures only represent a total of 2,292 permits issued last year and 363 in 1990.