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Home building rises but remains at only half level deemed healthy

Builders broke ground on more new homes last month, giving the weak housing market a slight boost at the start of the spring buying season.

Home construction increased 7.2 percent from February to a seasonally adjusted 549,000 units, the Commerce Department said Tuesday.

Building permits, an indicator of future construction, rose 11.2 percent after hitting a five-decade low in February.

Still, the building pace is far below the 1.2 million units a year that economists consider healthy. And the improvement followed February's decline to the second-lowest level on records dating back more than a half-century.

Single-family homes, which make up roughly 80 percent of home construction, rose 7.7 percent last month. Apartment and condominium construction rose 14.7 percent. Building permits increased to its highest level since December, spurred by a more than 28 percent jump in permits granted for apartment and condo buildings.

That increase in permits could signal a turnaround in the coming months, said Steven A. Wood, chief economist with Insight Economics. New homes typically take six months to build, and the number of new permits is higher than the number of homes starting construction.

The home construction activity rose in most regions of the country: 32.3 percent in the Midwest, 27.6 percent in the West and 5.4 percent in the Northeast. It fell 3.3 percent in the South.

New homes can spur job growth. Each new home creates the equivalent of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The trade group said Monday that its index of industry sentiment for this month fell one notch, to 16. That followed a one-point increase last month and four straight months of 16 readings.

Any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market's future, and the index hasn't been above that level since April 2006.

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