BUILDERS NOW HAVE DESCENDED upon Vegas for two Januarys in a row, but their activity at the casino tables during the International Builders' Show is nothing compared with the bets they're making—and winning—on the housing market.

Last year, with war looming and the economy slumping, everyone expected builders' luck to shift, just slightly, after a string of stellar years. But housing stayed hot. New-home sales hit 1 million. Housing starts surged, to more than 1.8 million units overall and nearly 1.5 million single-family homes. Housing values, after a few quarters of moderating increases, shot up again in late 2003 to 7.97 percent appreciation, the fourth year in a row that average home prices have risen by more than 7.5 percent.

Home builders are winning big.

And they're not taking their chips off the table. In 2004, public builders alone will spend nearly $20 billion on land, according to Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Ivy Zelman, who suggests that CEOs have become a little overconfident. As for the Builder 100 companies, they say they're just trying to win the game by playing the hand they've been dealt: positive demographics, increased immigration, higher household wealth, volume purchasing power, and the wildest card of all—local development politics, which could be either a joker or an ace in the hole.