New single-family home sales took an unexpected turn downward in December, dropping 7.6% from November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 342,000, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday.

The estimate was 8.6% below a downturn-depressed December, 2008 rate of 374,000 and the lowest annual estimate since March. Economists polled by Thompson Reuters had expected a 4.2% rise to a rate of 370,000; those surveyed by Dow Jones expected a smaller increase of 2.8% to 365,000.

The decline was the second in as many months, spurred in part by the expiration of the original first-time home buyer tax credit in November and unusually cold weather in parts of the country. The estimate of the decline for November, originally reported at 11.3%, was revised upward to a drop of 9.3%.

Prices, however, increased from November, with the median at $221,300, up from $210,300 and the average at $290,600, up from $270,000. The median price in December 2008 was $229,600; the average price was $263,100.

Months supply increased to 8.1 from 7.6 in November.

The estimates varied widely by region. The Northeast was up 42.9% to a rate of 40,000 units, up 33.3% from December, 2008. The Midwest dropped 41.1% to 43,000 homes, 27.1% off last year's pace. The South dropped 7.3% to a rate of 178,000, 7.8% behind December, 2008. The West rose 5.2% to an estimate of 81,000, 12% off the pace a year prior.

An estimated 374,000 new homes were sold in 2009, 22.9% below the 2008 figure of 485,000.