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Small housing gain unable to dispel pessimistic outlook

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    The battered housing industry got a small lift when more people bought new homes in March. Above is a just-sold home in Springfield, Ill.
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WASHINGTON » More people bought new homes in March, giving the battered industry a small lift after the worst winter for sales in almost a half-century.

New-home sales rose 11 percent last month from February to a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000 homes, the Commerce Department said yesterday.

That follows three straight monthly declines. Still, the pace remains far below the 700,000 homes a year that economists view as healthy.

Sales of new homes fell last year for the fifth consecutive year, and the market is showing no signs of rebounding. Economists say it could take years before sales return to a healthy pace.

The median price of a new home rose nearly 3 percent from February to $213,800. New-home prices are about 34 percent higher than the median price for resales. That’s more than twice the markup in healthy housing markets.

Builders are struggling to compete with a rec­ord number of foreclosures, which have forced down the price of resales and made them more of a bargain. The disparity has dragged on the economy. New homes represent a fraction of sales, but they have an outsize impact on the broader economy. Each new home creates an average of three jobs for a year and $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

"New housing prices look much less attractive compared to cheap existing stock," said Yelena Shul­ya­tyeva, an analyst with BNP Pari­bas. "As such, new housing demand will likely remain depressed throughout this year and next."

Many builders are waiting for the glut of foreclosures and other distressed properties to be cleared before stepping up construction. But with 1.2 million foreclosures forecast this year nationwide, according to foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac Inc., a turnaround isn’t expected for years.

High unemployment, tight credit and a lingering fear that prices will fall further have kept people from making home purchases.

The seasonally adjusted number of new homes for sale in the United States is the fewest since the summer of 1967, when there were 110 million fewer people in the country.

Requests for building permits, a gauge of future construction, sank in the winter to their lowest level in more than 50 years. They recovered somewhat in March, but that improvement was spurred by a more than 28 percent jump in permits for apartment and condo buildings.

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