By Martin Crutsinger
Confidence among U.S. builders ticked up this month to a five-year high, an indication that the housing market is slowly improving.
The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index rose in June to 29, the highest reading since May 2007. It increased from a reading of 28 last month, which was revised down one point.
The index, which was released Monday, has risen in seven of the past nine months. Still, any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn't reached that level since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.
In June, builders reported seeing the best sales level since April 2007, according to a separate measure in the survey. Their outlook for sales in the next six months, however, hasn't changed from May.
The modest improvement among builders follows other signs that suggest the housing market could be slowly starting to recover.
In April, sales of both previously occupied homes and new homes rose near two-year highs. Builders are breaking ground on more homes and requesting more permits to build single-family homes later this year.
Cheaper mortgages and lower home prices in many markets have made homebuying more attractive. Many economists believe that housing construction could contribute to overall economic growth this year for the first time since 2005. Jennifer Lee, senior economist for BMO Capital Markets, said that the June reading on builder sentiment was welcome news. She said that even with recent weak readings on employment, the builders' outlook for sales over the next six months did not decline and foot traffic remained the same.
Still, the pace of home sales remains well below healthy levels. Economists say it could be years before the market is fully healed.
Many people are still having difficulty qualifying for home loans or can't afford larger down payments required by banks. Some would-be homebuyers are holding off because they fear that home prices could keep falling.
The economy is growing only modestly and job creation slowed sharply in April and May. U.S. employers created only 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year.
Though new homes represent less than 20 percent of the housing sales 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 Home Builders' data.
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