WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sales of new homes soared 10.3 percent in January, the biggest increase in more than four years, as buyers flocked to take advantage of mortgage rates dipping below 7 percent.

New single-family homes sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 877,000, the second-highest level on record, the Commerce Department said today.

The increase, from a rate of 795,000 in December, was the most since September 1993. The level matched November's and was exceeded, in records stretching back to 1963, only by the 880,000 rate in March 1986.

January's brisk sales rate, powered by double-digit gains in the West and South, provided a fast start for builders in 1998. Nevertheless, economists don't expect the year to quite live up to 1997, when a 19-year high of 803,000 homes were sold.