As yearend construction figures trickle in, 1996 is shaping up as the year of the home builder.

"It will be one of the best years of this decade" for new home construction, said Stanley Duobinis, director of forecasting for the National Association of Home Builders, Washington.

Data through November suggest 1996 housing permits will come in at 1.4 million - up from 1.33 million in 1995, and the highest figure since 1988 - according to U.S. Housing Markets, a Canton, Mich., housing research publication.

Economists cite job growth and consumer confidence as reasons for the boom.

"The unemployment rate is at a level that most economists believed was nonachievable a year or two ago," Mr. Duobinis said.

Demographics also played a part in the upsurge in construction.

Adults at the tail end of the baby boom generation - now in their mid-30s - have begun settling down, often in new homes, Mr. Duobinis said.

"They married later, they bought homes later," he explained.

And when they do settle down, a third of these late bloomers are choosing new homes over previously owned homes.

Traditionally, only 20% of first-time buyers would choose a new home, Mr. Duobinis said.

Southern and western states are faring particularly well as new jobs continue to draw professionals from the Northeast, immigrants from Mexico, and Californian transplants.

Georgia set a record for the third consecutive year in construction of single-family homes, U.S. Housing Markets reported.

In addition, applications for single-family construction permits in Arkansas and South Carolina may top 24-year-old state records, while builders in North Carolina could set an all-time record, the publication reported.

Multifamily construction is also tremendously strong in Austin, Tex., Raleigh, N.C., and Orlando, Mr. Duobinis said, as northeasterners run to warmer climates.

Home building is expected to simmer down somewhat during 1997, according to Mr. Duobinis.

The home builders association is projecting a slide in housing permits to 1.35 million.

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