Home builders ended the year on a strong note.
Housing starts picked up 4.4% from November, and were up 5.3% from the same month last year, with the gains coming chiefly from single-family houses. Both starts and building permits for single-family homes in December hit their highest levels since 2008. That's according to new figures from the Census Bureau on Wednesday.
It's a sign that the housing recovery is finally starting to spread into the new-home market, which has been sluggish as cash-strapped buyers have stayed away and many builders have focused on building pricier, but fewer, houses.
"The single-family market ended the year with a bang," wrote Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight, in a note on the report Wednesday morning.
Still, 2014 was a slow year, relatively speaking, for the home building industry. Housing starts climbed 8.8% from 2013, to 924,900, while building permits -- which are issued prior to construction -- climbed 4.2% to 990,800. But gains in both categories were concentrated in the multi-family sector as apartment construction surged. And both categories remain at levels last seen in the early 1990s, well below their pace through the late '90s and 2000s prior to the housing crash.
Still, Newport said, that could bode well for 2015 if the economy continues to improve and drives new demand.
"The outlook is definitely brighter at the end of 2014 than it was a year ago," he wrote.