Housing construction improved last year in Greater Des Moines, with the most significant increase in building permits since the real estate collapse in 2006 and 2007.


Creighton Cox, who crunches building permit numbers as executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines, said the better than 50 percent increase in building permits issued last year - to 4,489 from 2,966 in 2011 - is a "strong showing that housing has recovered in the area."


The largest growth area is multifamily projects. They are a desired target for lenders, and the burst in apartment units is a sign that the trend to rent rather than buy has not been reversed by an improving economy. Event though, permits for single-family houses have steadily increased since 2008, they lag growth in 2005 and 2006.


"Multifamily rental units have replaced the first-time buyer option of townhomes due to lack of financing and increased loan requirements," Cox said in a year-end report on residential construction. "In this same sense, the 2012 single-family permit numbers are even more significant, understanding that construction lending and single-family mortgages continue to be difficult to obtain."


Of the permits issued last year, 1,994 were for single-family houses, 365 were for townhouses and duplexes and 2,130 were for multifamily projects. In 2011, 2,966 permits were issued, with 1,710 for single-family, 248 for townhouses and duplexes and 1,008 for multifamily.


Hubbell Homes was the top house builder last year, with Jerry's Homes Inc. second and Windsor Homes third.


Business also was spread among more builders last year.


The top three builders saw their share of the market drop to 17.5 percent last year from more than 19 percent in 2011, when 45 builders represented 62.5 percent of all permits. In 2012, 64 builders obtained nearly 76 percent of all permits.


Ankeny, West Des Moines and Johnston ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in permit activity last year, with Ankeny, West Des Moines and Urbandale leading in single-family and townhouse permits.


The early numbers for this year also are encouraging, with 158 permits issued in January compared with 75 in January 2012.