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UPDATE 2-Robust U.S. housing data point to strengthening economy

Wednesday, 18 Dec 2013 | 10:13 AM ET

* Housing starts up 22.7 pct, largest rise since Jan 1990

Single-family, multi-family starts post hefty gains

* Permits fall 3.1 percent, but remain above 1 million units

(Adds details from report, analyst comments, markets)

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - U.S. housing starts surged to their highest level in nearly six years in November, a sign of strength in the housing market that could give the Federal Reserve ammunition to start cutting back its bond purchases.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday housing starts jumped 22.7 percent, the biggest increase since January 1990, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.09 million units. That was the highest level since February 2008.

"The last piece of the economic puzzle is falling into place and the expansion is assured. The last argument against tapering fell today, let's hope the Fed hears the news," said Chris Rupkey chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York.

The report was released as Fed officials met for a second day. The housing market had slowed in recent months, a development policymakers acknowledged at the central bank's October meeting.

Some economists expect the Fed to announce a reduction in its $85 billion monthly bond buying program later on Wednesday, although more believe it will wait until January or March.

Groundbreaking increased 1.8 percent in October to an 889,000 unit pace. Economists had expected starts to come in at a 950,000-unit rate in November and set a 915,000-unit pace in October.

A run-up in mortgage rates, in anticipation of the U.S. central bank tapering its monthly bond purchases, took some edge off the sector's recovery earlier in the year, but not enough to halt the process as a steady increase in household formation from multi-decade lows props up demand.

SINGLE-FAMILY STARTS SURGE

The housing starts data was the latest indication the economy was strengthening, with employment rising solidly in October and November, and retail sales and industrial production exceeding expectations last month.

The firmer tone appears to have spilled over into December, with a separate report on Wednesday showing the services sector maintained its sturdy growth pace this month.

U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data as investors awaited the outcome of the Fed meeting later on Wednesday.

Last month, groundbreaking for single-family homes, the largest segment of the market, soared 20.8 percent to a 727,000-unit pace, the highest level since March 2008.

Starts for volatile multi-family homes jumped 26.8 percent to a 364,000-unit rate.

Multi-family starts have risen strongly through the course of the housing recovery, buoyed by demand for rental apartments as still-high unemployment and stringent lending practices by banks priced potential homeowners out of the market.

While permits to build homes fell 3.1 percent in November to a 1.01 million-unit pace, they were above economists' expectations for a 990,000-unit pace. Permits lead starts by at least a month.

The drop in permits last month is likely to be temporary. Homebuilder confidence rose in December, with builders upbeat on current sales conditions, future sales and prospective buyers, a report showed on Tuesday.

"The housing pick-up is sustainable into the first half of 2014," said Jay Morelock, an economist at FTN Financial in New York. "Builders are optimistic about pent-up consumer demand, even in the face of rising rates and stronger prices."

The stock of houses on the market remains lean and the inventory of homes under construction is at a 4-1/2 year low.

In November, permits were weighed down by a 10.8 percent drop in approvals for the multifamily sector. Permits for single-family homes rose 2.1 percent.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Krista Hughes and Andrea Ricci)