There have been a few signs lately that the housing market isn't going to be in the doldrums forever.

Sales contracts for previously owned homes rose in October, for example - still much lower than the same month in 2009, during the first tax-credit-induced buying frenzy, but enough to cheer some economists who previously had little to be cheerful about.

On the other hand, there are still a lot of homes for sale and few buyers. Economists seem to agree that job growth is the key to market recovery, and the latest data show that higher employment is just not happening.

Then again, Philadelphia is slightly ahead of the curve, which appears to be helping one housing segment - rental apartments.

When I contacted John Featherman of Prudential Fox & Roach recently, he was two hours from closing his 187th rental contract of the year - a record for him, he said.

Although demand for rentals in Philadelphia has remained high since October, "the nature of the demand has dramatically shifted," Featherman said.

About 25 percent of his inquiries are for short-term rentals of four to six months. "In the past, it's almost always been a temporary job or assignment," he said.

Now, it's "buyers who have sold their homes or who have moved from other cities and plan to sell their home, and they now are actively looking to buy with an agent. They need time to find something."

Allan Domb, of Allan Domb Real Estate, said that Center City's under-$2,500-a-month market is strong, but that the $2,500-to-$4,000 market is weaker than it was in 2008.

"There is some demand for over $5,000, but there is not a lot of product yet," he said. "The big factor here is what happens to new condos that are not selling. Do they become rentals? I say some do."

A fourth-quarter report from the real estate investment-services firm Marcus & Millichap said that a modest pace of job creation would continue to stimulate tenant demand in the Philadelphia region, pushing down the vacancy rates and reversing most of the 2009 rent decline.

The report also noted that:

The addition of 4,500 private-sector positions in the first three quarters contributed to the generation of 8,600 new households. Employers will continue to cautiously replenish staffing levels in the fourth quarter, leading to the creation of 13,000 jobs this year, a 0.5 percent increase over 2009, when employment contracted 3.6 percent.

Multifamily construction projects totaling nearly 1,200 units are slated for delivery in 2010, an increase from only 442 units last year, but a mere 0.5 percent addition to inventory. All but one of those projects is on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware.

After an increase of 0.8 percent in 2009, average marketwide vacancy will fall 1 percent, to 5.5 percent, this year as job creation stimulates rental-housing demand.

Improving vacancy rates will support modest rent growth. In 2010, asking rents will rise 1.7 percent, to $1,019 per month, compared with a 2.1 percent drop last year. Effective rents will advance 2.6 percent to $971 per month, after falling 3.9 percent in 2009.

A rental-market indicator I've been following since the summer is North American Lofts in Northern Liberties, which Parkway Corp. bought from the lender that foreclosed on it.

Since Aug. 1, more than 87 percent of the 40 units have been leased, at rents of $1,300 to $3,800, said Parkway president Robert Zuritsky.

Featherman said that, based on the growth of short-term rentals and the reasons for them, he sees the for-sale market recovering by the second or third quarter of 2011.

"By no means does this mean the rental market will drop," Featherman said. "It does mean that the buyers are quietly coming back, and the sellers should take note."