OZARK, MO - FEBRUARY 16: A townhouse where, until recently, English fugitive Edward John Maher lived with his family is seen February 16, 2011 in Ozark, Missouri. After nearly 20 years on the run from authorities, the suspect of an armored car heist known as 'Fast Eddie' was discovered in the Southwest Missouri town. (Photo by Julie Denesha/Getty Images)
USA TODAY - Housing starts fell sharply last month but they remained strong enough to give builders their best year since 2007, the Commerce Department said Friday.
Starts fell 9.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 999,000 in December following a surge in November to the highest level of the year -- 1.1 million. December's rate was the year's third highest.
The government estimated 923,400 homes and apartments were started last year. That's more than 18% above the 2012 figure of 780,600.
In 2007, housing starts totaled nearly 1.4 million.
Applications for building permits, a barometer of future activity, fell 3% in December. Applications for permits to build single-family homes fell 4.8% while applications to build apartments were unchanged.
Unseasonably cold weather last month was likely behind last month's weakness in housing starts and the loss is likely to be made up in the coming months, said Thomas Feltmate, an economist at TD Bank Group.
Friday's numbers follow Thursday's report showing U.S. home builders losing a little confidence this month.
The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index dipped to 56, down slightly from December, but the index is still higher than where it was a year ago. Readings above 50 indicate more builders view conditions as good than poor while those under 50 point to pessimism.
Rising home prices and pent up demand will drive a gradual recovery in the year ahead, says David Crowe, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.
NAHB predicts single family construction to hit 820,000 units this year. That's still far off the 1.3-million a year pace in the years leading up to the housing bubble and bust.
Construction of multi-family units will come closer to normal with 326,000 units this year vs. a more historical norm of 340,000, NAHB says.
NAHB doesn't expect the home building sector to fully recover until 2016.
"We are getting there but it's not a fast process," Crowe says.
Overall, housing and economic activity is now back to normal in 56 of 350 metropolitan areas nationwide, shows the latest NAHB/First American Leading Markets Index.
That index tracks housing permits, home prices and employment data. Major metros topping the list include Baton Rouge, La, Honolulu, Austin and Houston, Texas.
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