U.S. home building closed out 2012 with the most new homes started since June 2008, as the Commerce Department reported on Thursday a 12.1% rise in housing starts last month.

New homes hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 954,000. Construction for the year was up 36.9% over 2011, with 780,000 new homes started to reflect the highest rate since 2008.

Single-family homes comprised two-thirds of housing starts last month, rising 8.1% in December to a rate of 616,000 units. That was an increase of 18.5% from a year earlier.

Construction of multi-family homes, which is considered a volatile component, surged 20.3%.

All four U.S. regions saw a jump in new homes last month. Numbers were up 24.7% in the Midwest, 21.4% in the Northeast, 18.7% in the West and 3.8% in the South.

The Commerce Department’s numbers soared past expectations. Economists polled by Dow Jones Newswires had expected overall housing starts would rise to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000.

Housing starts in November were revised down to 851,000, a 4.3% decrease from the previous month.

Actual housing starts without seasonal adjustments, which are a better gauge of demand for lumber and commodities markets, dropped slightly to 61,500 in December from a downwardly revised 63,300 in November.

Looking ahead in the housing market, permits for future home construction increased to a 903,000-unit rate, the quickest since July 2008.

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