Housing starts finish year on an off note

If housing starts are going to gain 20% in 2011 as recently predicted, they're going to have to pick up the pace.

Data released Wednesday morning show housing starts in December were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 529,000 -- that's down 4.3% from November and down 8.2% from the December 2009 rate. 

For the full year, the total number of starts finished at 598,200, slightly ahead of 2009's record low of 583,000.

Single-family homes -- the bread and butter of builders and dealers who serve them -- were at a pace of 417,000 in December, down 9% from the downwardly revised November figure. The 417,000 pace is the lowest since April 2009, when single-family starts were crawling at a rate of 386,000.

The 529,000 rate is the lowest since October 2009. Clearly, these were not the numbers home channel industry executives were looking for. Analysts were surprised, as well -- economists at Briefing.com had expected the rate to be in the 565,000 neighborhood.

However, a bright spot appeared in the measure of building permits for December, which jumped 16.7% to 635,000. Single-family building permits were at a rate of 440,000, up 5.5%.

At the International Builders' Show last week, economists from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)