UPDATE 3-Lennar orders stay strong in recent U.S. housing slowdown
* Fourth-quarter revenue rises 42 pct to $1.92 bln
* Earnings $0.73/share vs $0.56 a year earlier
* Average selling price jumps 18 pct to $307,000
* Gross margin improves 330 basis points
* Shares rise as much as 5 pct
(Adds CEO quote, analysts' comments; updates shares)
Dec 18 (Reuters) - Lennar Corp, the No.3 U.S. homebuilder, reported a 13 percent jump in quarterly orders and the second-highest gross margins in its 59-year history, defying a recent slowdown in the U.S. housing market that hurt its bigger peers.
Housing demand, which stayed strong through 2012, slackened this summer as mortgage rates increased due to concerns over a cutback in the U.S. Federal Reserve's bond buying program.
While interest rates have dropped from a two-year high in July, investors will be closely watching the Fed's last policy announcement of the year later on Wednesday.
Lennar shares and those of its peers rose in morning trade after Commerce Department data showed that U.S. housing starts in November had surged to their highest level in nearly six years.
"The housing market remains on track for a solid recovery," Lennar Chief Executive Stuart Miller said on a post-earnings conference call.
The company is better positioned than most peers to maintain its homebuilding pace even in a slowdown, since it bought land in high-demand areas through the downturn. This allows it to raise prices now that there is a shortage of developed lots.
"They're best in class," Williams Financial Group analyst David Williams said. "These guys are doing everything that needs to be done and they're able to drive gross margins higher even in the face of rising costs."
Lennar's decision to offer apartment rentals - commonly called the "multi-family" business - has also put it ahead of its two bigger peers, D.R. Horton Inc and PulteGroup Inc , to weather a further possible slowing in U.S. housing recovery next year.
The company said on Wednesday it leased one apartment community with 11 more under construction at the end of the fourth quarter.
"Multi-family could be a huge driver for (Lennar's) earnings growth next year that I don't think has been factored into shares yet," Williams said.
RISING SELLING PRICES
Lennar said that its average selling price rose 18 percent to $307,000 in the fourth quarter ended Nov. 30.
The jump indicates that "demand is still strong enough to allow Lennar to maintain its recent price increases during a volatile political and rising interest rate environment," Raymond James analyst Buck Horne wrote in a note to clients.
D.R. Horton, the No.1 homebuilder, has not been able to raise its prices as much due to its lower presence in areas close to the city centers, where demand is currently high.
In November, D.R. Horton reported an average sales price of $261,400 for its fiscal 2013 ended Sept. 30.
D.R. Horton and No.2 PulteGroup also reported a drop in orders in their most recent quarters.
Lennar's orders increased to 4,498 homes from 3,983 in the fourth quarter of 2012. Orders are a key indicator for builders, who do not book revenue until they close on a house.
Net income attributable to Lennar rose to $164.1 million, or 73 cents per share, in the quarter ended Nov. 30, from $124.3 million, or 56 cents per share, a year earlier.
Gross margins increased 330 basis points to 26.8 percent.
Total revenue jumped 42 percent to $1.92 billion.
Lennar shares were up 2.4 percent at $36.05 on the New York Stock Exchange. The Dow Jones Home Construction Index was up 2 percent.
(Reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bangalore; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)