Easier access to credit helped boost small businesses' optimism in the third quarter to its highest point since the recession began, according to a survey released Tuesday.

Small-business optimism stood at plus-25 in the most recent Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index results — the highest score since the third quarter of 2008. (The index ranges from minus-400 to plus-400; a zero would indicate the surveyed business owners were, as a group, neutral about their situation and prospects.) But small business owners' overall outlook remains far gloomier than during the salad days of the prerecession years. Between August 2003 and the fourth quarter of 2007, the average index score was plus-103.

A looser lending environment helped brighten small business owners' expectations, with 28% of small business owners saying they expected credit to be very easy or somewhat easy to obtain in the next 12 months. That's the highest percentage since 2009. The portion of small business owners who expect credit to be difficult to come by dropped quarter-over-quarter throughout the year, finally hitting 30% in the third quarter.

"The survey has shown a slow and uneven recovery for small businesses," Doug Case, Wells Fargo's small business segment manager, said in a press release. "This quarter we continue to see business owners express cautious optimism as economic trends improve, such as a strengthening housing market."

Small business owners also cited a steadily improving housing market as another reason for increased confidence. Of those surveyed, 45% said that rising house prices would improve their businesses' sales.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.