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U.S. home construction up after two months of declines

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U.S. home construction nudged up in November after two months of declines.

Builders broke ground last month on a seasonally adjusted 555,000 units, a 3.9-percent rise from October, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Even with the gain, housing starts are just 16 percent above the 477,000 unit pace from April 2009 — the lowest point on records dating back to 1959.

And they are down 76 percent from their peak in January 2006, and 45 percent below the 1 million annual rate that analysts say is consistent with a healthy housing market.

Locally, building permits were up 17 percent in the nine-county area, from 222 in November 2009 to 259 in November 2010. That's the first year-over-year monthly rise since June.

Nationally, all the activity last month came from building single-family homes. They increased to a pace of 465,000 units, a 6.9-percent rise from October. Apartment construction fell 9.1 percent, to a unit pace of 90,000.

Housing permits, a barometer of future demand, fell 4 percent, to an annualized rate of 530,000, reflecting weakness in apartment construction. It marked the lowest level in permits since April 2009.

More than a year after the recession ended, the housing market is struggling.

The Federal Reserve on Tuesday cited that as a reason it decided to stick with a $600 billion Treasury bond-buying program intended to bolster the economy.

Americans are trying to repair personal finances battered by the recession. So they aren't in a rush to make big-ticket financial commitments and buy homes. Plus loans are still hard to come by. A wave of home foreclosures is keeping home prices down. That's good for would-be buyers, but not for builders.

The weak housing market is one of the negative forces confronting a slowly improving economy. So is high unemployment, now at 9.8 percent.

Each new home built creates, on average, the equivalent of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

U.S. homebuilders remain uneasy about the housing market's prospects in the months ahead, discouraged by weak job growth and millions of foreclosures, the association says. Its monthly reading of builders' sentiment remained unchanged in December at 16.

Builders are anticipating fewer sales in December than most years, says NAHB Chairman Bob Jones, mostly because of competition from sharply discounted foreclosed homes, tighter lending standards and poor overall job growth. December is traditionally one of the slowest times for sales.

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