No. 2 U.S. homebuilder PulteGroup Inc's

quarterly pretax loss narrowed and said its underlying business is operating at about a break-even level.

After four years of steep declines, the U.S. housing market continues to show signs of stabilizing, albeit at historically low levels, Chief Executive Richard Dugas Jr said in a statement.

During a conference call with analysts on Friday, Dugas pointed to hiring by the car companies headquartered in Detroit near Pulte, which is based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

In December, contracts for pending sales of previously owned homes rose 2 percent, faster than expected, according to the National Association of Realtors Pending Home Sales Index.

Compared to a loss of $917.2 million last year, Pulte's loss before income taxes shrank to $190.5 million.

The No. 2 U.S. homebuilder posted a net loss of $165.4 million, or 44 cents a share, compared with a loss of $116.9 million, or 31 cents per share, a year earlier.

The loss includes $196 million in charges related to land write-downs, debt and restructuring, and $35 million in tax benefits.

Our underlying homebuilding business is operating around the break-even mark after adjusting for charges, Dugas said.

Investors were probably pleasantly surprised that the results weren't worse, said Morningstar analyst Mike Gaiden, pointing out that Pulte's shares fell sharply after it reported a wider loss in the third quarter.

On Thursday, the company's shares were down around 5 percent in advance of its quarterly numbers.

These results are more in line with their peers, Gaiden said. The stock could benefit from a bit of a relief rally.

Orders in the quarter fell 19 percent to 3,044 homes, in line with the 16.7 percent decrease reported by bigger rival D.R. Horton Inc late last month.

Revenue slumped 31.5 percent to $1.19 billion, compared with the average analyst estimate of $1.12 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Revenue from homebuilding fell 31 percent to $1.16 billion.

Pulte shares were up 16 cents at $7.70 on Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Helen Chernikoff and Ben Klayman; Editing by Derek Caney, John Wallace, Phil Berlowitz)