U.S. builders started work on more single-family homes in May and requested the most permits to build homes and apartments in three and a half years. The increase suggests the housing market is slowly recovering even as other areas of the economy have weakened, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The Commerce Department said Tuesday that builders broke ground on 3.2 percent more single-family homes in May, the third straight monthly increase.

Overall housing starts fell 4.8 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 708,000. But that was entirely because of a 21.3 percent plunge in apartment construction, which can be volatile from month to month.

The government also said April was much better for housing starts than first thought. The government revised up the figures to 744,000 — the fastest building pace since October 2008.

And builders are more optimistic about the next 12 months. They requested more permits to build homes, a gauge of future construction. Permits increased to a seasonally adjusted rate of 780,000 — the most since September 2008.

Even with the gains, the rate of construction and the level of permits requested remain roughly half the pace considered healthy. Yet the increases add to other signs that the home market may finally be starting to recover nearly five years after the housing bubble burst.