WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. homebuilders are gradually growing more optimistic about the depressed housing market and believe homes sales could pick up sharply at the beginning of 2012.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo index rose for a fifth straight month in February to 29. The index has climbed 15 points since September and is now at its highest level since May 2007.

Builders have generally become more hopeful during that stretch about current sales, sales six months out, and foot traffic, the report shows.

Even with the brighter outlook, the industry has a long way to go. Any reading below 50 indicates negative sentiment about the housing market. The index hasn't reached 50 since April 2006, the peak of the housing boom.