(December new-home sales report updated with additional economic detail.)

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- Sales of newly built homes spiked 17.5% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 329,000, the Commerce Department said Wednesday morning, a far bigger jump than expected.

The figure was expected to come in at a rate of 300,000, according to consensus estimates listed on

Briefing.com

, after

sales of newly built homes rose 5.5% in November to a rate of 290,000 units.

>> 10 Top Buy-Rated Real Estate Stocks for 2011

Despite the surge last month, December's new-home sales figure remained 7.6% below year-earlier levels.

The median sale price of new homes sold last month was $241,500, up from $213,000 in November. The average sale price in December was $291,400, up 8.4% month over month.

On a seasonally adjusted basis there were 190,000 new homes for sale at the end of December. That represents a 6.9-month supply at the current sales pace, down from an 8.2-month supply at the end of November.

An estimated 321,000 new homes were sold in 2010, 14.2% below the 2009 figure of 375,000.

The homebuilder sector is well off its late-spring peak, when

buyers were rushing to take advantage of federal tax credits for homebuyers, and is only slightly higher than at the beginning of 2010. Whereas other sectors have begun a rebound in earnest, the housing sector continues to lag.

The

SPDR S&P Homebuilders

(XHB) - Get Report

, an exchange-traded fund that tracks the homebuilder sector, remains around 60% off its peak of $46.08 in early 2006. The

iShares Dow Jones US Home Construction

(ITB) - Get Report

ETF remains more than 70% off its peak of $50.10 in the spring of 2006.

>> Housing Market to Recover in 2013: Analyst1

Among individual builders,

Toll Brothers

(TOL) - Get Report

rose 1.8% in morning trading Wednesday following the new-home sales data.

Toll Brothers surprised investors with a return to year-over-year profitability in its fiscal fourth quarter, and recently said deposits jumped 10% in the second half of November compared with year-earlier results.

Lennar

(LEN) - Get Report

gained 2.7%. Earlier this month,

Lennar posted better-than-expected fiscal-fourth quarter earnings but said new-home deliveries were down 12%.

Small-cap builder

KB Home

(KBH) - Get Report

jumped 4.1% Wednesday morning.

KB Home recently posted a surprise quarterly profit and said fewer homes delivered in its recent quarter was partially offset by an increase in the average selling price.

Elsewhere,

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get Report

added 1.8% and

PulteGroup

(PHM) - Get Report

rose 2%.

The government data followed a report last week from the National Association of Realtors which showed that

existing-home sales rose 12.3% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.28 million units, topping Wall Street's expectations. While the rate improved, it remained 2.9% below the 5.44 million units recorded in December 2009.

"December was a good finish to 2010, when sales fluctuate more than normal," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "The December pace is near the volume we're expecting for 2011, so the market is getting much closer to an adequate, sustainable level."

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $168,800 in December, up 1% year over year, the NAR report showed. Distressed homes accounted for 36% of all existing-home sales last month, up slightly from a 33% share in November.

Pending home sales rebounded 3.5% in November but remained 20.5% lower than in the year-earlier month. Data on December's pending home sales is expected to be reported on Thursday.

On Tuesday the

S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index of national home prices came in 1.6% lower for November, after

declining 0.8% in October, a slightly larger than expected drop. The 10-city composite showed a 0.4% decline in November.

The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index is a moving three-month average, so data for November was swayed by data from October and September.

Home prices fell in 19 of the 20 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) month-over-month. Just four MSAs -- Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington -- showed year-over-year gains, while eight markets -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, Portland (Ore.), Seattle and Tampa -- fell to their lowest levels since home prices peaked in 2006 and 2007.

"With these numbers, more analysts will be calling for a double-dip in home prices," said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at Standard & Poor's, who defines a double-dip as setting new post-peak lows.

A variety of factors have kept potential buyers from making home purchases in recent months despite

mortgage rates

at near-record lows. Still-high unemployment, a lack of credit and the

expiration of federal tax credits for homebuyers are obvious reasons. The recent

foreclosure scandal also plays its part.

Earlier last week, the

Commerce Department reported that applications for building permits spiked 16.7% in December, pointing to potential strengthening in demand for future homebuilding activity, though homebuilders began construction on 4.3% fewer homes in the month.

"As we emerge from the traditionally slow holiday season, builders continue to look for signs of improvement in the economy, home buyer demand and builder and consumer credit conditions," said Bob Nielsen, a home builder from Reno, Nev., and 2011 chairman of the National Association of Home Builders.

Though a restrained level of optimism is fair, the short-term housing picture remains fairly grim.

"At this point, housing remains on the sidelines of a weak economic recovery as consumers and builders wait for clear and consistent indications that jobs and economic output are reviving," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "Meanwhile, the problems that builders continue to confront in obtaining production financing, and in maintaining performing lines of credit, threaten to significantly slow the onset of a housing recovery."

A shadow inventory of homes could take two to three years to clear to a point where housing supply and demand begin to match up, Kevin Brungardt, CEO of RoundPoint Financial, a mortgage origination and servicing firm, told the

TheStreet

last month. No acknowledged housing bottom will appear until that shadow inventory is significantly curtailed, he said.

Homebuilders should expect material dampening of

new-home purchases until then, Brungardt forecast. Current homeowners will also continue to be impacted unfavorably.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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Miriam Reimer

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