For all of 2012, builders started work on 780,000 homes. That was still only about half the annual number consistent with healthy markets. But it represents a 28 percent jump from 2011. And it was the most housing starts since 2008, when construction was still falling after the housing bubble burst more than six years ago.
Sales of new homes jumped nearly 20 percent last year to 367,000, the most since 2009. Still, many economists don't foresee a full housing recovery before 2015 at the earliest.
The National Association of Home Builders said Tuesday that confidence among U.S. homebuilders slipped in February from a 6 1/2-year high in January. Many builders reported less traffic by prospective customers before the critical spring home-buying season begins.
The home builders' sentiment index dipped to 46 in February from 47 in January. It was the first monthly decline in the index since last April.
Readings below 50 suggest negative sentiment about the housing market. The last time the index was at 50 or higher was in April 2006, when it was 51. It began trending higher in October 2011, when it was 17.
Many builders are facing higher costs for building materials and having trouble obtaining financing for construction. Some also are facing a shortage of workers in markets where residential construction has picked up sharply, such as Texas and Arizona.
Though new homes represent only a fraction of the housing 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 statistics from the home builders.
By region, January's decline in home construction was led by a 50 percent drop in the Midwest and a 35.3 percent decline in the Northeast. Analysts saw both declines as likely weather related. Construction rose 16.7 percent in the West and 4.1 percent in the South.