BEIJING (Reuters) - Prices of new homes in China grew last year at the fastest rate since 2011, but moderated enough in December to calm fears of a speculative bubble bursting with disastrous economic consequences.
The price moderation will come as a relief to China's leaders as they wrestle with economic targets for 2017.
Sources have told Reuters that Beijing is prepared to accept a more modest growth target of 6.5 percent this year as leaders tackle a mountain of debt built up over years of heavy official borrowing to fund stimulus campaigns.
China depended heavily on the surging real estate market and government stimulus to drive economic expansion in 2016. Now it is widely expected to report on Friday that it met its annual GDP growth target of 6.5 to 7 percent.
Analysts say two forward-looking figures -- household loans and house sales -- have been indicative of the cooling trend in the property market.
"There's usually a two to three months' lag between housing transactions and prices. And housing sales really began to fall quite precipitously in November," said Jonas Short, head of investment bank NSBO's Beijing office.
Average new home prices in 70 major cities rose 12.4 percent in December from a year earlier, compared to November's record 12.6 percent rise, data from the National Bureau of Statistics(NBS) showed.
National monthly growth cooled to 0.3 percent versus 0.6 percent in November, the NBS said.
Twelve 12 of 15 markets that had been singled out by authorities as overheating had price falls, a significant increase from November.
"Slow growth or slight price declines are exactly what the government wants," said Short.
China's leaders have pledged to strictly limit credit flowing into speculative buying in the housing market in 2017, which would allow it to focus on defusing explosive growth in corporate debt.
Those sentiments have been echoed by some local government heads, although local authorities are not always seen as eager to follow Beijing's property clampdowns due to the hefty revenues they garner from land sales.
China's average home prices are forecast to rise 4.1 percent in 2017, while growth in property investment would rise 5.4 percent, a state-owned newspaper reported earlier this month, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
But authorities will be walking a fine line between curbing excessive price gains and clamping down too hard on a sector which accounts for about 15 percent of the economy.
After 2016's record surge, further sharp gains may also require more aggressive policy curbs, adding to risks of a price crash and a sharp knock for the economy.
While supply in popular big markets remained low, China's commercial housing inventory totalled 691 million square metres in November 2016, a mere 0.01 percent drop from the same time a year earlier, adding to headaches of policymakers who set destocking in smaller cities as a priority last year.
Wednesday's data showed eye-popping price rises in 2016, despite a slowdown in growth late in the year.
Prices in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing prices rose 23.5 percent, 26.5 percent and 25.9 percent from 2015.
"To buy a house in Shanghai, I definitely can't do it alone, I'd need my parents to help," said 28 year-old Barret Xu, a designer in Shanghai.
Even in some of China's second-tier cities, investors are becoming wary of the potential risks from very high prices.
In Hefei, a long-time top price-rise performer, average new home prices rose 46.3 percent in 2016, Wednesday's data showed, despite posting a 0.2 price decline on a monthly basis in December.
A Hefei homeowner who only gave his last name as Zhou, who already has three properties in the city, said prices have skyrocketed and he is not willing to bet further on that market.
"The average prices are about 20,000 yuan per square metre and prices are still rising at about 1,000 yuan per month. It's way to high, Hefei is just barely a second-tier city," Zhou said.
"The rich people from Zhejiang province and Shanghai can afford to buy tens and hundreds of houses here, but the locals can't afford that," he said.
On Wednesday, a state-owned newspaper quoted a researcher for the cabinet as saying China should put a cap on the prices at which new homes are sold.
"The government should strengthen price controls on commercial housing to prohibit exorbitant profits by executing a price cap on new houses, which should be calculated by adding reasonable profits, say at maximum 20 percent, to costs," said Tang Yuan, department chief at the Policy Research Office of the State Council.
Reporting by Beijing Monitoring Desk, Yawen Chen and Elias Glenn; Additional Reporting by Ziye Lin; Editing by Eric Meijer