WASHINGTON -- Five years after the U.S. housing bust sent sales and prices plunging, the spring home-buying season is pointing to a long-awaited recovery.
Reduced prices, record-low mortgage rates, higher rents and an improving job market appear to be emboldening many would-be buyers. Open houses are drawing crowds. A wave of foreclosures is leading investors to grab bargain-priced homes.
And many people seem to have concluded that prices won't drop much further. In some areas, prices have begun to tick up.
Interviews with more than two-dozen potential buyers, sellers, brokers, Realtors and economists suggest that confidence is up and that sales will move slowly but steadily higher.
"The biggest challenge that we've had over the past four years is fear -- fear that the economy is collapsing, that property values are collapsing, that the world is coming to an end," says Mark Prather, a broker at ERA Buy America Real Estate in La Palma, Calif. "The fear factor is all but gone."
Prather says the number of prospective buyers who contacted his company last month was about 35 percent more than a year ago.
The spring buying season got an early lift-off from an uncommonly warm January and February -- a winter that was the best for sales of previously occupied homes in five years. Permits to build houses and apartments rose in February to their highest level since 2008.
"People feel much more confident," said Steve Brown, co-owner of real estate company Irongate Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, who says sales jumped more than 16 percent for the first two months of 2012 during the same period last year. "There's no question there's a good feeling in the marketplace."
Some analysts detected a slight uptick in prices for February and March. CoreLogic, a real estate data firm, says prices for homes not at risk of foreclosure -- about two thirds of the market -- rose 0.7 percent in February. It was the first increase in four years. Price gains occurred both in some hard-hit areas, such as Phoenix, and some still-thriving areas such as New York and Washington.
In Miami, the average sales price has surged 14 percent in the past year, according to Trulia, a real estate data firm. In Phoenix, the average is up 13 percent, in Pittsburgh 9 percent.
Earnings reports Friday from two big banks suggested that more people are taking out mortgages. JPMorgan Chase issued 6 percent more mortgages from January through March than it did a year ago and got 33 percent more applications. Wells Fargo issued 54 percent more mortgages and received 84 percent more applications.
Still, few think the housing industry is nearing a return to full health. For that to happen, a robust job market would be needed. More hiring would give more people the money and job security to buy. That would help boost sales and prices.
Such areas as Atlanta, suburban Las Vegas and central California show few signs of recovery. And in some others -- from Seattle to Cleveland -- home prices have continued to slip. The average has dropped 9 percent in Seattle during the past 12 months and 7 percent in Cleveland.
But in many parts of the country, including thriving areas of Boston, Dallas and Seattle, confidence is rising along with prices. Among the reasons:
• Hiring has strengthened. Each month from January through March generated a solid average of 212,000 jobs. Unemployment has sunk from 9.1 percent in August to 8.2 percent. More job security tends to embolden more people to invest in a home. In Dayton, for example, the University of Dayton is hiring for a new engineering research center, General Electric is hiring hundreds of contractors and the nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base are expanding.
• Loans remain cheap. The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is 3.88 percent. That's just above the 3.87 percent reached in February -- the lowest since long-term mortgages were first offered in the 1950s.
• Homes are more affordable. Nationwide, home prices are down 34 percent since 2006.
• Americans are more confident. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's survey of consumer confidence rose in March for a seventh straight month to its highest level in 13 months.