WASHINGTON – November marked a two-year low for the number of people applying for initial unemployment benefits, suggesting that the tight job market may be easing at last.

The slowing of layoffs and a solid month for retailers are the latest evidence of a strengthening economy in the final months of the year. Even the struggling housing market showed signs of improvement: On Thursday, it posted a third straight monthly increase in signed contracts for home purchases.

Some economists are now sketching a more optimistic forecast for today’s report on November employment, though few expect a change in the 9.6 percent jobless rate.

“We are starting to get some self-sustaining momentum in the economy,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight.

Gault predicts that private companies added a net total of 180,000 jobs last month — a bump-up from his earlier forecast of 160,000 new jobs. In October, private companies added a net 159,000 jobs. That marked a spurt of job creation after hiring had all but stalled pretty much all summer.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits actually rose last week, by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 436,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Still, the figures are often volatile during the weeks around the Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving holidays.

A more telling figure was a decline in the four-week moving average of claims, which smooths volatility. That fell to 431,000 last week, a two-year low.

“After being little-changed for most of the year, new jobless claims have broken to the downside in the last several weeks, suggesting that labor markets may actually be improving,” said Steven Wood, chief economist for Insight Economics.