Groundbreaking for new U.S. home construction was down 4.0% in December to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 557,000, while private housing permits rose 10.9% to a rate of 653,000, according to Commerce Department data released yesterday.

Commerce also reported that for all of 2009, housing starts fell a record 38.8% to 553,800 units from 905,500 units in 2008.

Permits fell 36.9% in 2009, to a 571,600 rate from 905,400 in 2008, the largest decline since a 41% drop in 1974.

The 557,000 December rate for private housing starts was lower than the 580,000 median estimate predicted by economists polled by Thomson Reuters. It followed an upwardly revised 580,000 rate in November that was originally reported as 570,000.

Meanwhile, the 653,000 December level of private housing building permits came after a revised 589,000 November figure that was originally reported as 584,000. However, the December rate easily beat economists’ 580,000 estimate.

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