New housing starts rose 21 percent in January from a year ago, the Census Bureau said today, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 591,000.

That’s up from a record low pace of 479,000 units per year seen in April, but still well off the 1 million to 2 million-a-year range that’s been the norm for five decades. During the last boom, housing starts peaked at 2.07 million in 2005.

Single-family home starts were up 36 percent from a year ago, to a seasonally adjusted rate of 484,000 per year.

Single-family home starts, which typically exceed 1 million a year when the economy is not in a recession, hit an all-time high of 1.72 million in 2005 before plunging to 445,000 last year.

Analysts said builders may be putting up homes on "spec" to beat the expiration of a federal homebuyer tax credit, currently limited to homes under contract by April 30 and closing by June 30.

Building permits were also up 16.9 percent in January from a year ago, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 621,000. Housing completions were down 15 percent from a year ago, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 659,000.

For housing markets, home starts can be a double-edged sword. Severe cutbacks in new-home construction have helped reduce pressure on inventories in some markets, providing support for prices. But economists say new-home construction, and the jobs it creates, is often the primary driver pushing the economy out of a recession.

In their latest mortgage finance forecast, economists at the Mortgage Bankers Association project that housing starts will rebound from a record low of 554,000 in 2009 to 743,000 this year, climbing to 1.02 million in 2011 and 1.34 million in 2012.

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