NEW YORK – Signs of life in consumer spending are sprouting this spring.

A partial rebound in consumer confidence, a positive report on January home prices and an expected strong March from retailers suggest Americans are cautiously perking up.

The Conference Board said Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 52.5 in March, recovering about half of the nearly 11 points it lost in February. Analysts expected a reading of 50 for March, but the index is still far below the 90 reading that’s considered healthy.

February’s 46.4 marked the lowest level since April 2009 and also erased three consecutive months of improvement. In January, the reading was 56.5.

Economists watch the figures closely because consumer spending, including health care and other major expenses, accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity and is critical to a strong economic recovery.

“We’re a lot better off, but we have a lot more improvement to go,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. He said shoppers have “more willingness to spend” and are starting to trade back up in areas where they had cut back.

Meanwhile, merchants are expected to report a 3.5 percent gain for March when they release sales figures next week, according to Niemira’s estimate, which was upgraded from his original 2.5 percent projection. The figure is based on sales at stores open at least a year, considered a key indicator of a retailer’s health.

The index excludes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, which stopped reporting sales figures on a monthly basis.

February’s plunge in confidence had jolted investors, but March’s report appeared to confirm that last month’s reading was an aberration. Many factors had dampened confidence, including severe weather that had shut businesses and thwarted job searches, and a stock market hurting because of international worry about Greece’s national debt.

Still, March’s reading, buoyed in part by a rally in the stock market, shows consumers no more optimistic than when the economic recovery started nine months ago. In June 2009, the reading hit 49.3.

Confidence has been recovering fitfully since hitting a historic low of 25.3 in February 2009. But many economists believe it will remain well below healthy levels for at least another year or two. That’s because key pillars of the economic recovery still need to improve more.

While housing woes are still a concern, many economists say Americans won’t spend with vigor until the job picture improves dramatically.