- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 16, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. homebuilders broke the 1 million mark in March for the first time since June 2008. The gain signals continued strength for the housing recovery at the start of the spring buying season.

The overall pace of homes started rose 7 percent from February to March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.04 million, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Apartment construction, which tends to fluctuate sharply from month to month, led the surge: It jumped nearly 31 percent to an annual rate of 417,000, the fastest pace since January 2006.

By contrast, single-family homebuilding, which makes up nearly two-thirds of the market, fell 4.8 percent to an annual rate of 619,000. That was down from February’s pace of 650,000, the fastest since May 2008. The government said February’s pace was a sharp 5.2 percent higher than it had previously estimated.

Applications for building permits, a gauge of future construction, declined 3.9 percent to an annual rate of 902,000. It was down from February’s rate of 939,000, which was also nearly a five-year high.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, called the data “obviously good news.” But he noted that the surge was due to a jump in volatile apartment construction and said the pace of building could drop in April.

Steady job growth, near-record-low mortgage rates and rising home values have encouraged more people to buy. In response to higher demand and a low supply of available homes for sale, builders have stepped up construction.

March’s pace of homes started was nearly 46 percent higher than in the same month in 2012.

Housing construction fell 5.8 percent in the Northeast but gained in the rest of the country, led by a 10.9 percent rise in the South. It rose 9.6 percent in the Midwest and 2.7 percent in the West.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo April survey released Monday showed that builders are concerned that limited land and rising costs for building materials and labor could slow sales in the short term. That situation led to a third straight monthly drop in confidence.

Still, the builders’ outlook for sales over the next six months climbed to the highest level in more than six years, suggesting that the obstacles could be temporary.

And construction firms have stepped up hiring in recent months. They added 18,000 jobs in March and 169,000 since September, according to the Labor Department.

Though new homes represent only a fraction of the housing market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to statistics from homebuilders.