The roller coaster of Utah housing costs headed down in March to help cut the overall local cost of living by 0.5 percent, First Security Bank reported Tuesday.

"In March, housing costs dropped by 0.7 percent," said Kelly K. Matthews, executive vice president and chief economist for the bank, which tracks local consumer prices. "That's the first decline since March 1997, when housing prices fell 0.5 percent."It also stands in stark contrast to February 1998, when a 1.9 percent increase in housing costs was the largest in three years and forced the overall cost of living up 0.1 percent.

The First Security report said lower rental charges were responsible for the drop in March.

Nationally, inflation disappeared from the U.S. economy in March as a continued drop in energy costs offset scattered price increases in other areas.

The Consumer Price Index was unchanged last month after inching 0.1 percent higher in February and holding steady in January, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Inflation ran at a minimal 0.2 percent annual rate for the first quarter of 1998.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that national retail sales unexpectedly declined 0.1 percent in March, pulled down by drops in the sale of autos, building materials and furniture.

National energy prices fell 1.2 percent in March, the fourth drop in a row. Food prices were unchanged for the second straight month.

The local decline in housing costs compared with a national increase of 0.3 percent, the First Security report said. Over the past six months, local housing costs increased 1.2 percent compared with the same period a year ago.

Since First Security started the local reports 10 years ago, the overall cost of goods and services along the Wasatch Front has increased 33.5 percent, compared with a national rise of 39.2 percent.

Here are how some spending categories fared locally in March:

CLOTHING - Clothing prices in the area fell 0.5 percent in March, following increases in January and February.

GROCERIES - After falling for the first two months of the year, grocery prices along the Wasatch Front increased by 0.3 percent in March. Decreases in costs of produce and meat were offset by increases for shelf items, such as an 8 percent price increase for eggs and 6.4 percent jump for flour.

HEALTH CARE - Local health-care costs followed the previous two months of stability with a 0.1 percent increase in March, fueled by higher prices for non-prescription medicines. Nationally, costs jumped 0.2 percent.

MISCELLANEOUS - Miscellaneous expenses were stable along the Wasatch Front in March.

RESTAURANT FOOD - The cost of eating out remained stable in March after falling in February.

TRANSPORTATION - Transportation costs plummeted 1.9 percent in March to record the seventh straight monthly decline. Higher gas prices were offset by lower vehicle maintenance costs.

UTILITIES - Local utility bills were stable for the eighth month in a row, while the national report noted a 0.2 percent decline.

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Additional Information

Cost of living index

WASATCH FRONT

Index %Change (Non Seas.Adj)

Mar. 1988=100 6 mos. 1 mo

prior prior

All Categories 133.5 1.1 -0.5

Housing 169.6 1.2 -0.7

Transportation 111.4 -2.3 -1.9

Health Care 140.5 1.3 0.1

Food at Home 144.2 4.4 0.3

Clothing 119.9 -0.7 -0.5

Food Away 146.4 2.7 0.0

Utilities 94.6 1.1 0.0

Other 129.0 3.6 0.0

NATIONAL

Index %Change (Non Seas.Adj) (Seas.Adj.)

Mar. 1988=100 6 mos.* 1 mo 1 mo.

prior prior prior

All Categories 139.2 1.6 0.2 0.0

Housing 136.0 2.2 0.3 0.2

Transportation 133.3 -0.1 -0.6 -0.6

Health Care 176.1 2.8 0.2 0.3

Food at Home 140.8 1.5 0.1 -0.1

Clothing 118.0 0.5 2.3 -0.2

Food Away 132.5 1.9 0.2 0.2

Utilities 130.7 1.0 -0.2 0.3

Other 172.9 5.3 -0.3 -0.3

* Last six-month percentage change compared with same period one year ago.

Courtesy of First Security Bank