Nation’s housing on the rebound

Confidence among U.S. home builders is on the rise, and many expect the housing recovery will strengthen in the next six months. (AP/West Bend Daily News, John Ehlke)

WASHINGTON — A jump in sales of previously occupied homes and further gains in home construction suggest the U.S. housing recovery is gaining momentum.

The pair of reports Wednesday follows other signs of steady progress in the housing market after years of stagnation. New-home sales are up, builder confidence has reached its highest level in more than six years and increases in home prices appear to be sustainable.

Sales and construction rates are still below healthy levels, economists caution. But the improvement has been steady.

And the broader economy is likely to benefit. When home prices rise, Americans typically feel wealthier and spend more — a point Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made last week after the Fed unveiled a plan to lower mortgage rates. Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economic growth.

“We have a real housing recovery taking root, and that has positive implications for the broader economy,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets. “If home prices continue to rise, so, too, will household wealth and consumer confidence.”

Sales of previously occupied homes rose 7.8 percent in August from July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday. That’s the highest level since May 2010, when sales were aided by a federal home-buying tax credit. In Charleston region, home sales were up 12 percent in August compared to the same month a year ago, and they are up 10 percent year-to-date.

U.S. builders broke ground on 2.3 percent more homes and apartments in August than July. The Commerce Department said the annual rate of construction rose to a seasonally adjusted 750,000. The increase was driven the best rate of single-family home construction since April 2010.

Even with the gains, the market has a long way back to full health. Sales of previously occupied homes remain below the more than 5.5 million that’s consistent with a thriving market. In better economies, homebuilders start twice as many homes.

Strict credit standards and bigger down payment requirements have made it harder for many first-time buyers — who are critical to a housing rebound — to qualify for mortgages. The number of first-time homebuyers made up just 31 percent of the market in August. In healthier markets, the percentage is more than 40 percent.

For those who can qualify, the market is tempting. Mortgage rates are just above record lows. Prices, on average, are lower than they were six years ago.