WASHINGTON (AP) -- It's been a long time since the market for new homes has looked this good.
Rising rents and a healthier job market are inspiring more people to consider buying.
Builders are responding to the demand by laying plans for more homes this year than at any other point in past 3½ years.
And banks are helping both by approving more loans.
All that points to a better year for the housing market, though a full recovery could take several years.
"We're doing so much more business than we have in years," said Ed Kopal, who runs a construction company in East Texas and has seen his business more than double this year compared with 2011.
Others, too, foresee more enthusiasm among buyers after four sluggish years.
Builders requested a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 747,000 permits to build homes in March, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. The pace hasn't been that high since September 2008.
Of those requested, 462,000 permits were to build single-family homes. That's 12 percent more than just six months ago. Still, the figure remains far below the 800,000 permits a year that signify a stable new-home market.
Builders are seeing more demand for apartments, too. Over the past six months, permits to build apartments have surged 68 percent, to 285,000 permits. A healthy number is closer to 400,000 a year.
Rents are rising, which has spurred construction for both kinds of homes.
In Philadelphia, rents have increased nearly 15 percent over the past year through February, while home values have dropped 5.4 percent, according to real estate website Zillow.
Minneapolis rents are up nearly 10 percent; home prices are down nearly 7 percent. Baltimore has seen rents rise 8.6 percent and home values drop 4 percent.
In Chicago, median rents in the past 12 months have risen 8.6 percent, or more than $100 a month. In the same period, the median home price has fallen 11 percent, to just $154,600.
So while apartment developers are chasing higher rents, renters are seeing more incentive to buy homes. A survey of homebuilders has shown an increasing amount of foot traffic at open houses across the country since September.
Kennon Reinard and her husband were among those who felt the time was right. The couple has rented a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago for the past six years. Over the past month, they looked at 14 houses before making an offer of nearly $260,000 on a four-bedroom home on the Northwest side of the city.
"We've always wanted a house, but we never thought we could afford one," said Kennon Reinard, 33. "But we started noticing friends buying houses last summer and, when we checked it out, we realized we could own a whole home with a backyard without paying that much more than what we're paying in rent."
The Reinards and other potential homebuyers have another reason to feel good about trading rent payments for a mortgage: The job market has strengthened since last summer.
The unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.2 percent last month. Employers have added an average of 212,000 a month from January through March.
More jobs and a better outlook among buyers could also make 2012 the first year since 2008 that construction adds to growth — rather than detracts.
Record-low mortgage rates have helped persuade buyers. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate loan is just above the 3.87 percent level reached in February — the lowest since long-term mortgages were first offered in the 1950s.
Banks are also seeing more qualified buyers apply for loans. Two of the nation's biggest banks — JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo — approved more mortgage applications in the first-quarter, based on their recent earnings reports.
"The ones buying now are older, they've saved up for a while, they have good jobs, they are not risky," said Karen Mayfield, senior vice president of Bank of the West, a national bank lender based in San Francisco.
Among the most basic requirements needed for homebuyers: good FICO credit scores typically above 700, substantial down payments, stable job histories and thorough documentation.
The Reinards had been socking away a portion of their paychecks for all the years they rented and both have solid credit histories. They are coming to their closing in May with a down payment of more than $25,000.
"We feel very safe in our jobs," Reinard said. "We've been pretty financially responsible so we got thumbs up after all the checks."