Sales of new single-family homes came back from the second-worst month in recent history in November, posting a 5.5% gain to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 290,000, according to estimates released jointly Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

However, due to the continued depressed level of sales, the government data set has become increasingly unreliable. The estimates were based on the sale of only 21,000 houses, with only 2,000 each in the Northeast and Midwest. The report thus had a margin for error of plus or minus 16.2%.

While an improvement from a downwardly revised October rate of 275,000, the November number was still 21.2% below the November 2009 estimate of 368,000.Coming after Wednesday's report from the National Association of Realtors of a 5.6% increase in November existing-home sales, the news was taken as a negative, sending the stocks of public builders down in morning trading Thursday. Analysts were expecting an annual sales rate of 300,000.

The median sales price of new houses sold in November 2010 was down 13.9% to $213,000,; the average sales price was $268,700, up 8% from $248,700.

The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of November was 197,000, a supply of 8.2 months at the current sales rate, down from 8.8% in October.

Regionally, the usually volatile estimate for the Northeast was down 26.7% from October to an annual pace of 22,000, 29% behind November, 2009. The Midwest was off 13.2% sequentially to a pace of 33,000, down 53.5% year-over-year. The South, the largest region, was up 5.8% to a pace of 165,000, still 12.7% behind November last year. The West was up 37.3% to a pace of 70,000, down 9.1% from November, 2009.

Median months-for-sale increased from 8.1 in October to 8.2 in November, a substantial improvement from 13.9 months in November, 2009. Overall inventory of new-homes for sale fell to 197,000 from 201,000 in October and 235,000 in November of last year.

Michael Rehaut, home-building analyst at J.P. Morgan, took a more positive view of the data than investors who voted with their feet. In a research note, he said the numbers were "modestly positive as demand continues to stabilize follwing the expiration of the tax credit."