A yearend surge in apartment construction apparently spurred by government subsides helped make 1976 the best year for home builders in three years, the Commerce Department said yesterday.

The number of housing starts hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.94 million in December, an increase of 13.1 per cent. That compared with a 5.4 per cent drop in November and was the most starts for any month since the 2.058 million in August 1973.

Starts on single-family homes were up 7 per cent to an annual rate of 1.32 million, while multi-family starts were up 28.8 per cent.

For the year, starts were up 32.7 per cent from 1975's depressed level to 1.539 million. That was the most units started for any year since the 2.045 million in 1973.

Building permits for the country as a whole rose 36 per cent in 1976 to 1.2 million. Though a permit is needed to begin construction, the higher number of starts than permits during the year means some houses were begun on permits issued in the previous year.

In the Washington metropolitan area, 17,899 permits were issued in 1976, a 93 per cent increase over 1975. Fairfax County issued its highest number of permits since 1972.

Carla A. Hills, the outgoing Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, issued a farewell statement hailing the upsurge. "The new administration is inheriting a vigorous housing market," she said. "If it is successful in reducing the rate of inflation still further, the 1977 record could significantly better that of 1976."

Patricia Roberts Harris, designated as her successor, last week endorsed the national housing goal of 2.6 million new and rehabilitated units a year set in the 1968 Housing Act.

A principal reason for the increased activity was HUD's issuance of 24,000 subsidy authorizations last September to spur construction of apartments for the poor. The Washington area also enjoyed one of the highest multi-family construction rates in several years, according to Michael Sumichrest, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders.

After a weak fall, December showed the strongest increase in starts for any month since August 1973. While there were slightly more single-family homes built in December than in November, the number of apartments surged from 382,000 to 502,000 nationally.