Feb. 26, 2013 at 9:14 AM ET
Taxes are higher, gas prices are rising, and Washington is in budget gridlock again, but the nation's housing market is viewing the world through rose-colored glasses.
Two pieces of data released Tuesday show that the recovery in real estate continues to be a bright spot in the still somewhat sluggish economic rebound.
New-home sales leaped in January versus the previous month to the highest level in 4-1/2 years, government data showed, as steady job creation and record-low interest rates spurred buying.
In the meantime, single-family home prices picked up in December, closing out 2012 with the biggest yearly gain in more than six years, a closely watched survey showed on Tuesday.
The S&P/Case Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas rose 0.9 percent in December on a seasonally adjusted basis, topping expectations for a gain of 0.5 percent.
On a non-adjusted basis, prices were up 0.2 percent.
"Home prices ended 2012 with solid gains," David Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, said in a statement.
"Housing and residential construction (led) the economy in the 2012 fourth quarter."
Prices in the 20 cities jumped 6.8 percent year-over-year, ahead of expectations for 6.6 percent and the best yearly gain since July 2006.
For the final quarter of the year, prices gained 2 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis.
The Commerce Department said Tuesday that new-home sales rose nearly 16 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 437,000. The percentage increase was the largest in nearly 20 years. And December's sales were revised higher to 378,000 from 369,000.
The number of previously occupied homes for sale is at a 13-year low. That shortage creates more demand for new homes. Builders began construction on the most homes in four years last year.
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 National Association of Homebuilders.
The increase in home building has helped boost construction hiring. The industry has gained 98,000 jobs since September, the best stretch since the spring of 2006.
Still, the increases in new-home sales are coming from depressed levels. Sales plummeted to a record low in 2011. And sales are still well below the 700,000 annual level that economists consider healthy.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.