Home sales reach highest rate since 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Existing-home sales rose in February to reach the highest rate in more than three years, another sign of a strengthening housing market, as inventories posted an unusually large gain in the month, a trade group said Thursday.

The National Association of Realtors said existing-home sales rose 0.8 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million, hitting the highest level since November 2009.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected a pace of 5.02 million for February, compared with an original estimate of a 4.92 million rate in January. On Thursday, the Realtors’ group upwardly revised January’s rate to 4.94 million.

While sales remain below pre-bubble levels, low mortgage rates and an improving jobs picture are supporting demand. Also, rising prices are encouraging activity, luring sellers to place homes on the market. Inventories rose 9.6 percent in February to 1.94 million existing homes available for sale. The supply of existing homes rose to 4.7 months in February from 4.3 months in January, the first increase since April, but still a relatively low figure. January’s supply was the lowest since May 2005.

Compared to February 2012, the median sales price rose 11.6 percent to $173,600.

Other housing data released this week indicated a housing market that is growing stronger in the long term, despite some mixed recent data. Construction of new U.S. homes nudged up in February.

Going forward, there’s concern that overly stringent lending standards and ongoing high unemployment could cut the housing market’s improvement.

Still, analysts expect the housing market to continue to add to economic growth this year, given the Federal Reserve’s backing and an economy that is adding jobs. Indeed, a recent reading on building permits, which are a sign of future demand, hit the highest level since June 2008.