Building consent figures continued to drag along at low levels in July, with the main bright spot being the number of retirement units authorised.

The seasonally adjusted number of new houses authorised last month, excluding apartments, slumped 5.3 per cent, following a 1.1 per cent rise in June, Statistics NZ said.

When the volatile apartment category was included, the number of new housing units authorised rose 3.1 per cent, following a 3.3 per cent rise in June.

Consents were issued for 1473 new housing units, of which 203 were for apartments.

ASB said the apartment consents had kept the overall number of residential consents up. The 203 last month was the highest number of apartment consents since May 2009, and compared with an average around 77 units a month in the past year. The apartment consents included 128 retirement units.

Consents for non-residential work remained weak, and while the $293 million non-residential value in July was up on the previous two months, it was down 21 per cent on year ago levels, ASB said.

The three-month total value of non-residential consents was down 30 per cent on a year earlier.

Social, cultural and religious buildings, and education buildings, had made the largest contribution to the value of non-residential consents, continuing the pattern of public spending offsetting some, but not all, of the weakness in private projects.

The data was consistent with ASB's view that overall economic recovery in New Zealand contained a weak outlook for the construction sector.

TD Securities senior strategist Annette Beacher said the figures were a positive start for the September quarter, even though the pace of recovery may be frustratingly slow. Consents remained well below average, running at an annual rate of 16,400, well below the long run average above 23,000.

ANZ said there was little evidence that the October 1 rise in GST was encouraging some residential work to be brought forward. But it still expected residential investment to rise off cyclical lows as the labour market recovery gathered pace.

It expected residential investment activity would recover, but for that to be pushed back into 2011.

The value of consents issued for residential buildings in July was $490 million - $48 million or 11 per cent higher last month than in July 2009.

- NZPA