Home builder sentiment falls a point in December to 57

Builder sentiment down
Builder sentiment down   

The nation's home builders seem resigned to the fact that their business is recovering at a slower-than-expected pace.

Home builder sentiment remained in positive territory in December, falling just 1 point on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) month to month, after a big jump in November. Sentiment now stands at 57 on the index; anything above 50 is considered positive.

"Members in many markets across the country have seen their businesses improve over the course of the year, and we expect builders to remain confident in 2015," said NAHB Chairman Kevin Kelly, a home builder and developer from Wilmington, Delaware.

A For Sale sign in Sarasota, Florida
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
A For Sale sign in Sarasota, Florida

Of the HMI's three components, current sales conditions fell 1 point to 61, future sales expectations fell 1 point to 65 and potential buyer traffic held steady at 45, the only component still mired in negative territory.

Overall confidence is now right back to where it was one year ago, after falling into negative territory in the first half of this year.

Read MoreSales of newly built homes struggle in November

"After a sluggish start to 2014, the HMI has stabilized in the mid-to-high 50s index level trend for the past six months, which is consistent with our assessment that we are in a slow march back to normal," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "As we head into 2015, the housing market should continue to recover at a steady, gradual pace."

While confidence is higher, actual single-family housing starts are improving only very slowly. Household formation has been all on the rental side, but given the anemic pace of construction during the worst of the housing crash, starts should be at a much higher pace now, just on pure population growth. The trouble is the builders are not seeing commensurate demand.

Read MoreFor home buyers, mortgage demand is locked at lows

"I think buyers are still a little bit skittish," said Douglas Yearley, CEO of Pennsylvania-based Toll Bros. on a conference call with analysts last week, following the company's quarterly earnings release. "Why 2014 was a pause, flat to 2013 and not improving, has been a bit puzzling."

Regionally, on a three-month running average, builder confidence in the West rose 4 points to 62. In the Northeast it gained 1 point to 45, while in the Midwest it dropped 3 points to 54, and in the South it dropped 2 points to 60.