WASHINGTON -- More people bought new homes in March, helping give the battered industry a small lift after the worst winter for sales in almost a half-century.

The Commerce Department says new-home sales rose 11 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000 homes. That follows three straight monthly declines. But the pace remains far below the 700,000 homes a year that economists view as healthy.

Last year was the fifth consecutive year of declines for new-home sales. Economists say it could take years before sales return to a healthy pace. Poor sales of new homes mean fewer jobs in the construction industry, which normally powers economic recoveries following recessions. Each new home creates an average of three jobs for a year and $90,000 in taxes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The median price of a new home rose nearly 3 percent from February to $213,800. New-home prices are about 34 percent higher than the median price of re-sales -- more than twice the markup in healthy housing markets.

Many builders are waiting for the glut of foreclosures and other distressed properties to be cleared before stepping up construction. But with 1.2 million foreclosures forecast this year nationwide, according to foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac Inc., a turnaround isn't expected for years.

The seasonally adjusted number of new homes for sale in the United States is the fewest since the summer of 1967.

Builders have struggled to compete with a wave of foreclosures and short sales -- when a lender agrees to let a borrower sell a home for less than its market value. High unemployment, tight credit and a lingering fear that prices will fall further have also kept people from making home purchases.

Residential construction has all but come to a halt. Building permits, a gauge of future construction, sank in the winter to their lowest level in more than 50 years before recovering somewhat in March. But that improvement was spurred by a more than 28 percent jump in permits granted for apartment and condo buildings. That suggests that builders are confident people are flocking to rentals, not homeownership.

New-home sales rose in most regions of the country. Sales jumped nearly 67 percent in the Northeast, which was hit hard by wintry weather; by almost 26 percent in the West; and by nearly 13 percent in the Midwest. Sales fell 0.6 percent in the South, which accounts for the nation's biggest home-sale market.

Given the pace of new-home sales, it would take more than 7 months to clear them off the market. Economists say a six-month supply of homes is healthy.