Perhaps reflecting the continued unwillingness of Americans to buy houses, starts and permits for multifamily construction outpaced single-family figures in August.

The Commerce Department said single-family starts - which economists consider key to the recovery of the residential market - rose just 4.3 percent, compared with 32.2 percent for multifamily (rental apartments and condos).

While multifamily permits rose 9.8 percent, those for single-family units - another key indicator - dropped 1.2 percent, the Commerce Department reported Tuesday.

Permits are considered more important than starts because economists consider them "forward-looking" indicators of building activity.

"Home ownership is no longer so desirable – or even possible – for as many households as before," said senior principal economist Chris G. Christopher Jr. of IHS Global Insight of Lexington, Mass.

"Recent evidence suggests that the mix of residential housing demand is shifting from single-family toward more multifamily structures, from owner-occupied toward rentals," he said.

The size of the overall increase was larger than forecast because standard models that economists use to make their predictions remain under the influence of two years of government tax credit.

These same economists are predicting that existing-home sales for August, which will be released Thursday by the National Association of Realtors, will be greater than anticipated and signal the turnaround in the market.

If August existing-home sales in the eight-county Philadelphia area are any indication, the U.S. increase will likely be small.

Prudential Fox & Roach HomExpert shows August sales 6 percent higher than those for July, but 29.6 percent below the same month in 2009.

Compared with June, which saw a bumper crop of closings resulting from the now-expired federal tax credit, August sales were 46 percent lower, HomExpert showed.

Not all are rental apartments, however. Part of the gain represents "a surge in the condominium market," said George Mason University real estate professor Anthony Sanders.

"Given the tightness of mortgage credit and fears about the economy, entry-level owners often select lower-cost condominiums," he said, adding that "the government is also skewing the market by catering policy toward multifamily housing."

Sanders said, however, that because of an already large inventory of unsold condos, advocating construction of more multifamily housing "could push us toward a condominium bubble."

On the other hand, National Association of Homebuilders economist David Crowe said builders were trying to replenish the supply of apartments after a "three-year decline in multifamily construction."

The builders' group contends that difficulty finding construction financing is affecting the single-family market more than buyer apathy.

In Philadelphia, where more than 13,000 units of housing have been completed since the late 1990s, demand for rental units continues to exceed supply, real estate agents say.

Some failed for-sale condo projects thrive as rentals.

Parkway Corp. purchased American Lofts in June from Abington Bank, which had foreclosed on the developers of the 40-unit condo project in Northern Liberties and shifted the building to rental.

Since then, leases have been signed on more than 70 percent of the units, which rent for $1,300 to $3,800 a month, said Robert Zuritsky, Parkway's president.

"I'd love to find more American Lofts deals in the next two years," he said.

Contact real estate writer Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.