Lennar (LEN) suffered a 5.5% slip in fourth-quarter profits, but the large U.S. homebuilder revealed encouraging improvements in sales and new orders.

The Miami-based company said it earned $30.3 million, or 16 cents a share, last quarter, compared with a profit of $32 million, or 17 cents a share, a year earlier. Analysts had called for a slightly stronger profit of 17 cents a share.

Revenue rose 11% to $952.7 million, beating the Street’s view of $914 million.

“Despite operating in a challenging real estate market, we achieved profitability in all of our business segments,” CEO Stuart Miller said in a statement.

Deliveries climbed 9% to 3,375 homes. Gross margins also expanded, rising to 19.4% from 17.7%.

Likewise, Lennar said new orders soared 20% last quarter to 3,027 homes. Its backlog surged 35% to end the quarter at 2,171 homes.

Given those positive trends, Lennar said it expects to be profitable in 2012.

"As we come to the end of 2011 and head into 2012, we have seen the market start to stabilize, driven by a combination of low home prices and low interest rates, making the decision to purchase a new home more attractive, compared to the heated rental market,” Miller said.

Shares of Lennar rallied 2.41% to $21.25 Wednesday morning, building on their early 2012 gain of almost 6%.

Smaller homebuilders like KB Home (KBH) and Hovnanian (KOV) saw even stronger gains.

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