Demand for rental units provided a boost to construction of multifamily housing in November, but modest gains in single-family-home starts and building permits were not enough to rescue that category from what will likely be its worst year on record.

On Tuesday, the Census Bureau reported that housing starts rose 9.3 percent in November, the biggest increase in 19 months, but the number of single-family houses started rose just 2.3 percent. Multifamily starts, primarily rental apartments, rose 23.5 percent.

Single-family building permits fared worse, growing just 1.6 percent, compared with 13.9 percent for multifamily housing.

Still, housing economist Patrick Newport, of IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., was cheered a bit by the single-family numbers. The market, he said, seemed to be "finally getting up off the mat."

Permits, not starts, are the factor economists take to heart, because they are much better measured, are less affected by weather, and are forward-looking.

Multifamily permits are at their highest level since October 2008. Rents are rising, vacancy rates are falling, and the economy continues to create enough jobs to sustain a modest recovery.

Rates of homeownership are falling, as well.

Strength in the multifamily market comes from an inability to buy homes, so more Americans are renting, said economist Joel L. Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Bucks County. Changing demographics, with many baby boomers now looking for condos, also are contributing, he said.

"Those factors slow the single-family sales, but are a consequence - not the driving force - for the slow construction rebound" in the for-sale market, Naroff said.

In the Philadelphia region, "a relatively strong recovery in apartment performance continues to unfold," said analysts with real estate investment-services firm Marcus & Millichap. Although only 100 new rental units will have been brought to the market by the end of 2011, projects totaling 1,100 units will be completed in 2012, the analysts said.

The number of multifamily permits issued in the region spiked in this year's second quarter to one of the highest levels in two years.

The bumper crop of lower-cost distressed housing nationally is actually doing more to depress single-family construction than any other factor, observers said.

The Campbell-Inside Mortgage Finance survey said the average November price for a short sale - in which the lender agrees to take less than is owed on the mortgage - was $209,200. Move-in-ready bank repossessions sold for an average $189,700, the survey said, while neglected and/or damaged homes went for an average $98,600.

Home-buying sentiment remains high, yet sellers still struggle with accepting lower-than-expected prices, a Mortgage Bankers Association-sponsored study showed.

Syracuse University professor Gary V. Englehardt, the study's author, said some sellers might be tied to past market values or owe too much on their houses to accept less.

Many economists anticipate continuing price declines. More than 100 polled by Zillow, the real estate search engine, maintain that the nation is "working through a bottoming-out process," said the company's chief economist, Stan Humphries.

Those polled said they expect prices to drop 1.57 percent in the fourth quarter and to continue to decline until the market's bottom is reached in late 2012 or early 2013.

After 2013: A steady annual appreciation rate of 3 percent through 2016, they said.

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