WASHINGTON — Home construction is making a long-awaited recovery that could help energize the U.S. economy.
From areas like Phoenix that are finally arising from the housing bust to cities like Chicago and Minneapolis where strong economies have lifted demand, residential construction is healthier than at any time since sales and prices collapsed five years ago.
The improvement has been gradual. But builders are responding to interest from buyers drawn by reduced prices, record-low mortgage rates and rising rents, which have made home purchases comparatively appealing. And the supply of new homes has shrunk to near record lows. That's pushing developers to build more.
"We've been hoping for this for a long time," said Celia Chen, a housing economist at Moody's Analytics. "Housing has been flat-lining at the bottom for two years. It looks like things are turning."
Last month, U.S. builders broke ground on the most homes in nearly four years. Single-family home building — the bulk of the market — rose for a fourth straight month. And permits to build single-family homes reached their highest point since March 2010. Permits are 76 percent higher in Miami than a year ago, Moody's estimates. Nationwide, they've risen 27 percent.
Home construction still has a long way to go to fully regain its health. June's seasonally adjusted annual rate of 760,000 is the highest since October 2008. But it's only about half the 1.5 million annual pace that economists consider normal.
From the depth of the housing bust in April 2009, when the seasonally adjusted annual rate bottomed at 478,000 homes, the improvement has been slow but steady.
A continued resurgence would deliver big economic benefits: A healthy pace of 1.5 million new homes a year would lower the unemployment rate by about 1.5 percentage points and create 50,000 additional jobs a month, according to calculations by Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers. About half the jobs would be construction workers and contractors.
It would also add roughly 0.5 percentage point to annual economic growth, Prakken estimates.
Economists at IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm, caution that they don't foresee starts reaching 1.5 million a year until 2015. At the current lower levels, home construction will likely have only a modest effect on the economy.
New homes represent just 20 percent of the home market. But each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to data from the home builders association.
Across the country, despite increased building, few new homes are available. There were only 145,000 new homes available in May — just above April's 144,000, which was the lowest on records dating to 1963.