2011 ended on a positive note with economic activity continuing to expand at a moderate rate and the housing sector finally gaining some positive momentum after bouncing along the bottom for most of the year.

Real growth of the gross domestic product was adjusted down to 1.8% for the third quarter, but it remained an improvement over growth of 0.4% in the first quarter and 1.3% in the second. Expectations are that statistics for the fourth quarter will show GDP growth strengthening further as businesses replenished inventories and the holidays boosted retail spending.

Despite concerns over the sovereign debt crisis in the Euro zone and slowing growth in emerging markets, particularly China, domestic conditions have shown improvement and the Federal Open Market Committee decided at its Dec. 13 meeting to maintain its current course.

After a mid-year slump, employment growth began to regain some momentum with the addition of 200,000 jobs and a decline in the unemployment rate to 8.5% in December, down 0.6 percentage points since August.

Employment growth is being supported by a steadily improving rate of job openings, which remained steady at 2.4% in October. The hiring rate in the construction sector was at a relatively high level of 5.8% in October, with construction job openings on pace to exceed total separations for the first time since 2006.

Largely positive housing news over the past few months suggests the recovery may finally be underway.

The number of metropolitan areas on the NAHB/First American Improving Market Index expanded to 76 in January, a net increase of 35, following similarly solid gains in November and December.

The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index of builder confidence in the single-family market has also made steady gains over the past three months, rising seven points since September to a level of 21 in December. With the exception of a reading of 22 at the height of home buyer tax credit sales in the spring of 2010, the December level was the highest since August 2007.

Despite a dismal year for housing production — which is likely to prove to be the worst in the 52 years that similar data has been gathered — there was a solid increase in housing starts and building permits in November.

The gains were led by the multifamily sector, driven by rising demand for rental housing as recession-nipped household formation rates begin to show signs of recovery. With rents increasing and rental vacancy rates falling in recent months, starts in buildings with five or more apartments have grown strongly, recovering to nearly two-thirds of more normal levels.

Single-family production, on the other hand, saw little improvement through 2011 and remains at roughly one-third of more normal levels.