America just had its best month for new home construction in 13 years

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HAMDEN, CT – AUGUST 02: New housing stands at Canal Crossing, a luxury apartment community consisting of 393 rental units near the university city of New Haven on August 2, 2017 in Hamden, Connecticut. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data, more U.S. households are headed by renters than at any point since at least 1965. Sixty-five percent of households headed by people under the age of 35 were renting in 2016, an increase from the 2006 figure of 57 percent. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Americans are in the market to buy houses again. New home construction rose nearly 17% in December, soaring to a level not seen since before the financial crisis.

The US housing market continues to recover, helped by a healthy American economy, a tight labor market with modestly rising wages, low inflation and low mortgage rates.

Consumer sentiment remained strong in January, University of Michigan data reported Friday.

New residential construction surged to an annualized 1.6 million housing starts in December, hitting its highest level since December 2006. Economists had expected new home construction to fall. Housing starts exceeded expectations by a wider margin only twice since 1998, noted Paul Hickey of Bespoke Investment Group in a note to clients.

Although month-to-month housing starts tend to be volatile, the strong December number is indicative of the healthy increase in demand for homes last years, said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide.

Mortgage rates fell to multi-year lows over the summer last year. Although they have rebounded some, rates are still favorable for buyers. This has inspired an upswing in home buying activity toward the end of 2019. But housing supply still lags demand, and affordability remains a problem for parts of the population.

Still, mortgage applications for new home purchases jumped 5% between November and December, and a whopping 38.7% year-over-year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. In the week of January 10, the average interest rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage for a balance of $510,400 or less was 3.87% — a four-month low, according to MBA.

Some analysts remain skeptical that America’s housing market is ready to boom again.

Although “all the ingredients are there for a strengthening of the housing construction market, it’s just that today’s results look over-the-top,” cautioned Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG.

One reason to take Friday’s good data with a grain of salt is that building permits fell 3.9% in December.

“Housing starts have been below housing permits lately so today’s figures look suspicious, meaning the good news cannot last,” Rupkey said.

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