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US housing recovery boosts pickup, SUV sales in March

DETROIT--U.S. sales of sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks jumped in March, spurred by rising home prices and an increase in housing construction, major automakers said on Tuesday.

In March, new light-vehicle sales rose 3.4 percent and the annual sales pace reached 15.27 million, in line with analyst expectations. This marked the fifth straight month the industry sales rate topped 15 million.

General Motors Co. said the stronger housing market helped its sales to small businesses rise nearly a third. Ford Motor Co., the No. 2 U.S. automaker, posted a 16.3-percent rise in sales of its F-Series pickup trucks.

“The housing sector recovery is in full swing,” Ford senior U.S. economist Jenny Lin told reporters and analysts.

The U.S. housing sector is starting to contribute to growth after years of dragging down the broader economy. Rising home values are helping U.S. consumers feel more confident about buying a new vehicle, GM and Ford executives said.

Home prices in 20 metropolitan areas rose 8.1 percent in January from a year earlier, the biggest 12-month rise since June 2006. Meanwhile, U.S. home builders are breaking ground on more new houses this year, boosting truck sales.

In about a month, GM will launch redesigned Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra big pickups as 2014 models. Ford is planning an overhaul of its F-150 next year.

Pent-up demand and a wider range of financing options have also helped boost sales, executives said. The average age of vehicles on U.S. roads is more than 11 years, an all-time high, and many consumers can no longer put off buying a replacement.

“You're not only having better traffic level, you're also having better success with so many people who got hit on their credit scores during the recession,” Al Castignetti, U.S. sales chief for the Nissan brand, said in an interview.

“That's opening up a whole new segment that was kind of locked out of the auto industry the last couple of years.”

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