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US sales of new homes drop in December but for all of 2013 climb to strongest level since 2008

In this Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, photo, a construction worker builds a new home in Wilmette, Ill. The Commerce Department releases new home sales for December on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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In this Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, photo, a construction worker builds a new home in Wilmette, Ill. The Commerce Department releases new home sales for December on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

WASHINGTON - U.S. sales of new homes fell in December for a second consecutive month but even with the pause at the end of the year, sales for all of 2013 climbed to the highest level in five years.

Sales of new homes dropped 7 per cent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 414,000, the Commerce Department reported Monday. In November, sales had fallen 3.9 per cent.

For the whole year, sales were up 16.4 per cent to 428,000, the highest level since 2008.

It marked the second year that sales have risen after six consecutive annual declines as the housing industry was rocked by the collapse of a housing bubble. Sales of new homes peaked at 1.28 million in 2005. Analysts expect further sales gains in 2014.

The median price of a new home was $270,200 in December, up 4.6 per cent from a year ago and up 0.6 per cent from November. The median is the point where half the homes sell for more and half for less.

There were 171,000 new homes on the market at the end of December, a drop of 2.8 per cent from November. At the December sales pace, that would represent a 5 month supply. That is lower than the six-month supply that economists view as healthy.

Housing was one of the strongest sectors of the recovery in the first half of 2013, but then it hit a lull during the summer when mortgage rates jumped on indications the Federal Reserve might soon start reducing the bond purchases it was making to keep long-term interest rates low.

But analysts are looking for housing to regain some of its lost momentum as the industry enters the all-important spring buying season. Analysts expect that continued improvements in the labour market will boost incomes and that will lead to stronger demand for homes.

Sales of previously occupied homes rebounded 1 per cent in December helping that market to sales for all of 2013 of 5.09 million. That was the best performance since 2006 when sales totalled 6.48 million. However, the sales gains in both 2005 and 2006 represented an unsustainable housing boom which collapsed, helping drag the economy into a deep recession which triggered a painful retrenchment in housing.

Analysts expect housing will keep recovering in 2014 but they don't look for the sales gains to be as large as they were in 2013.

Economists at Global Insight predict that growth of existing home sales will slow a bit from the 8.8 per cent gain in 2013 but still show a respectable increase of 5.1 per cent in 2014.

Mortgage rates rose in the summer to nearly a full percentage point higher than they were in the spring, when they were at record lows. And a limited supply of homes on the market helped drive up prices. The combination of rising mortgage rates and rising prices made home buying less affordable, particularly for first-time buyers.

Builders started work on 923,000 new homes and apartments in 2013, up 18.3 per cent from 2012. It was the fourth straight annual gain and the strongest construction pace since 2007 when 1.36 million homes were started.

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