"It's very encouraging to see traffic coming out," Ruma said. Between the houses that the central Ohio builder signed contracts on in the second half of 2011 and the homes it expects to sell between now and July, he estimates that the company will have 21 closings this year. That would be Virginia Homes' best performance since 2009 when it sold 12 homes. The company sold just six in 2010 and seven last year.
The collapse of the housing market in 2007 pushed many small builders out of business. The National Association of Home Builders went from 220,000 members in 2006 to its current 140,000. Now, a strengthening job market is encouraging prospective buyers to get back into the market. The improvement this year has been dramatic for some.
Stonecrest Homes, an Atlanta-based builder, sold 18 houses in January and February, up from two in the first two months of 2011, according to Jim Chapman, the company's chief financial officer. The Atlanta area was one of the hardest hit by the housing market crash.
Even builders who aren't selling more homes yet say they are noticing more interest from potential home buyers.
"They seem very serious about buying," said Sean Junker, president of Providence Homes in Jacksonville, Fla. Some of his sales staff has been showing the same home as many as four times a day - a welcome change from last year's pace of about once a day.
But it's way too early to declare the housing crisis over. The Commerce Department said 304,000 new homes were sold in 2011, the lowest on records that go back to 1963. Sales also fell in January. However, the overall housing market is getting better - sales of previously occupied homes have been rising.
While builders are upbeat about the improving market, they are mindful of the challenges they face.
"We're just starting to see the pent-up demand come out again," said Jeff Benach, whose Lexington Homes builds in the Chicago area. "If you have a home to sell, you're not going to buy unless you have that home sold, so it's spotty.
Patrick Driscoll, a home-remodeling contractor in New Hampshire, said business in his industry was also inconsistent. "People with money have been able to do projects," he said. For other homeowners, "the thought of putting money into the home and not getting it back is pretty scary."
Central Reclamation, a demolition and construction contractor in Los Angeles, is working continuously again after getting new jobs only every two to three months for the last two to three years. But owner Ron Fox isn't breathing easy just yet. He worries that business will be good for six months, and then "we'll go through another two years of what we just went through."