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Housing starts drop more than expected in December

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Housing starts fell in December as groundbreaking on rental property posted a big decline, splashing some cold water on hopes the still-weak housing sector could boost economic growth this year.

The Commerce Department said on Thursday housing starts fell 4.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000 units.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts edging down to a 680,000-unit rate in December.

Starts of buildings with five or more units dropped 27.8 percent to a 164,000-unit rate, the biggest drop since February.

Tempering the overall decline, groundbreaking on single family buildings rose 4.5 percent to a 470,000-unit rate.

Permits fell 0.1 percent to an annual rate of 679,000 units.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman)