Apartment construction, which is more volatile, surged 23 percent last month. It is now back to pre-recession levels.
Applications for building permits, a sign of future construction, inched up to a rate of 903,000 — the highest level since July 2008.
"The strong rise in single-family starts is a clear indication of builder confidence in the sales outlook," said Pierre Ellis, an economist at Decision Economics, in a note to clients.
Confidence among homebuilders held steady in January at the highest level in nearly seven years. But builders are feeling slightly less optimistic about their prospects for sales over the next six months, according to a survey released Wednesday.
In November, sales of previously occupied homes rose to their highest level in three years, while new-home sales reached a 2 1/2-year high.
Those factors have helped make homebuilders more confident and spurred new home construction. But homebuilders' are still warily watching the current standoff in Washington between President Barack Obama and Congress over several approaching budget deadlines, including the need to boost the nation's $16.4 trillion borrowing limit.
Though new homes represent less than 20 percent of the housing sales market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to data from the homebuilders association.