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US homebuilders less gloomy despite few buyers

In this Nov.3, 2011 photo, Jim Weiler, of Jim Weiler Construction, sets a roof truss on a home under construction in LaPorte, Ind. Rising interest from would-be buyers is leaving U.S. homebuilders less pessimistic about the housing market. But tighter lending standards are still keeping many potential buyers from purchasing new homes. (AP Photo/Michigan City News Dispatch, Bob Wellinski) 

In this Nov.3, 2011 photo, Jim Weiler, of Jim Weiler Construction, sets a roof truss on a home under construction in LaPorte, Ind. Rising interest from would-be buyers is leaving U.S. homebuilders less pessimistic about the housing market. But tighter lending standards are still keeping many potential buyers from purchasing new homes. (AP Photo/Michigan City News Dispatch, Bob Wellinski) 

WASHINGTON — Rising interest from would-be buyers is leaving U.S. homebuilders less pessimistic about the housing market. But tighter lending standards are still keeping many potential buyers from purchasing new homes.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index rose two points to 21 in December. That's the highest level since May 2010. It's just the second time the index has been at 20 or above in two years.

Still, any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn't reached 50 since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.

Last year, the number of people who bought new homes fell to its lowest level on records going back nearly a half-century. The figure for 2011 will be close to that level.

Builders are struggling to compete with foreclosures, which have forced down prices of previously occupied homes. And many buyers are finding it hard to qualify for loans or meet higher required down payments.

Low appraisals are scuttling some deals after contracts have been signed. As a result, some buyers who want to buy a new house are holding off because they can't sell their home.

Those in a position to buy are benefiting from lower prices and mortgage rates. The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.94 percent, a record low. Yet so far, those factors have done little to boost home sales.

David Crowe, the builder group's chief economist, pointed to some regional pockets of strength. New Orleans, Pittsburgh and other smaller areas, in particular, have reported increased buying.

New homes make up a small portion of housing sales. But they have an outsize impact on the economy. The builder trade group says each new home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in taxes.

Sentiment about current single-family home sales rose two points to 22, according to a separate gauge in the survey. Builders are also more optimistic about future sales.

The outlook in the South rose four points; it ticked up one point in the West. In the Midwest, it was unchanged, and in the Northeast, sentiment fell one point.