New construction starts in April were reported at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $400.2 billion, basically the same amount as March, according to a monthly report from McGraw-Hill Construction.

Nonresidential building slipped back after its elevated March pace, while nonbuilding construction (public works and electric utilities) continued to retreat, MHC says. In contrast, residential building in April registered a moderate gain, helped by upward movement for multifamily housing.

During the first four months of 2011, total construction on an unadjusted basis came in at $122.1 billion, down 9% from the same period of 2010.

“The pattern of construction starts has been essentially flat within a broad range for about two years now, and the past three months have come in towards the lower end of that range,” states Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction.

“There have been a few positive signs in recent months, such as the strengthening trend shown by multifamily housing and the pickup for manufacturing plants. However, single family housing remains stalled, and the tough fiscal environment continues to dampen the prospects for institutional building and public works, even with the occasional support coming from large projects such as took place during April. More and more, it’s looking like the best that can be expected this year for the overall level of construction starts is flat activity.”

Nonresidential building in April dropped 2% to $160.2 billion (annual rate), down slightly after the 26% gain reported for March. Much of April’s decreased contracting came from the commercial and industrial structure types, which had been boosted in March by the start of several very large projects, reports MHC.