___ Fewest requests for unemployment aid since 2008 WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of people applying for unemployment benefits plunged last week to the lowest level in nearly three years, continuing a downward trend that suggests hiring could pick up this year. Applications sank by a seasonally adjusted 36,000 to 383,000, the lowest point since early July 2008, the Labor Department reported Thursday. Some analysts cautioned that severe winter weather that affected 30 states could have contributed to the sharp drop, closing some government offices and preventing people from filing applications. Applications are well below their peak of 651,000, reached in March 2009, when the economy was deep in recession. Applications below 425,000 tend to signal modest job growth. But they would need to dip consistently to 375,000 or below to indicate a significant and steady decline in the unemployment rate. When unemployment was at a more normal rate of 5 percent in 2005, applications hovered around 322,000. In boom times, when unemployment dipped to a 30-year low of 3.8 percent in April 2000, applications fell to 259,000 ___ Era of super-low mortgage rates appears to be over NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ The days of the absurdly low mortgage rate are over. The average rate for a 30-year home loan rose above 5 percent this week for the first time since last April â¿¿ just as Americans are feeling more secure in their jobs and confident about the economy, and just before the big spring home-buying rush. Freddie Mac said Thursday that the average rate was 5.05 percent, almost a full percentage point higher than in November, when it hit a 40-year low. Economic signals suggest the recovery is gaining momentum. New claims for jobless benefits came in this week at the lowest in three years, and the unemployment rate has fallen nearly a full percentage point in two months. Americans are spending more and saving less.