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Existing home sales spike 5%

Realtors group says sales of existing homes rose in February. Prices tumble more than 15%.

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By Ben Rooney, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Sales of existing homes unexpectedly rose in February, recovering from a sharp drop in the previous month, according to an industry report released Monday.

The National Association of Realtors said that existing home sales rose last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.72 million million units, up 5.1% from a rate of 4.49 million in January. February sales were down nearly 5% from year ago levels.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com were expecting existing home sales to decline to 4.45 million.

The report said first-time buyers made up half of all purchases in February, and that sales of distressed properties accounted for about 45% of all transactions.

Sales were unexpectedly strong in the West, with activity increasing more than 30% over last year.

"February wasn't too shabby for the existing-home market," said Mike Larson, real estate analyst at Weiss Research. "The catch? The increase in sales activity is coming at the expense of pricing."

The national median existing-home price was $165,400 in February, down 15.5% from last year, when the median price was $195,800.

Prices were depressed by the large number of foreclosed properties on the market, said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun in a statement.

"Our analysis shows that distressed homes typically are selling for 20% less than the normal market price, and this naturally is drawing down the overall median price."

Meanwhile, the total number of existing homes on the market at the end of February rose 5.2% to 3.80 million units. At the current sales pace, it would take an estimated 9.7 months to sell down that inventory of properties.

The report also said the total number of homes for sale has steadily declined over the past six months from a record level last July.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said there's a "good chance" the collapse in home sales that has been going on since September is "now over." "Though a sustained recovery is still a long way off," he added.  To top of page

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