HOUSTON (Metrostudy) – Houston’s housing market appears to be building up steam, according to a recent report by housing data and consulting firm Metrostudy.

Area homebuilders started 18,417 new homes in 2011, a 2 percent decline from the 2010 total. But the 4,387 homes started in fourth quarter 2011 represent a 24 percent increase over last year’s tax credit-depressed quarterly starts count. Just over 4,890 new homes were closed last quarter, 388 more than the year before.

At the end of 2011, the city’s new home market had an inventory of fewer than 10,000 homes, a first since 1997. A 10 percent decline in new home closings in 2011 caused new home inventory to rise from 5.9 last year to 6.4 months.

But the city’s job growth should mean more work for builders this year.

“Based on the job growth of the last 12 months, the tight housing supply and the building confidence of the Houston market should lead to an increase in new home starts through the end of 2012,” said David Jarvis, director of Metrostudy’s Houston division.

Metrostudy said the city’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.6 percent in fourth quarter 2011, a full percentage point less than the previous quarter’s reading. Employment also grew by 3.3 percent annually.