Homebuyers signed fewer contracts for existing homes in January compared to December, but more compared to January 2009, according to a report released Thursday by the National Association of Realtors.

The index dropped 7.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 90.4 from an upwardly revised 97.8 the month before; the index rose 12.3 percent year-over-year, however, from 80.5, the report said.

The association’s Pending Home Sales Index is based on the number of signed contracts for resale homes including single-family homes, condominiums and co-ops. An index score of 100 corresponds to the average level of contract activity for the index’s base year, 2001, when activity was at a record high, the association said.

The data comes from more than 100 multiple listing services and 60 large brokers nationwide and represents 20 percent of all transactions.

"January pending sales, though still higher than one year ago, remain much lower than expected given that a large number of potential buyers are eligible for the expanded homebuyer tax credit," said Lawrence Yun, the association’s chief economist.

Yun said he expects weak numbers for February as well, due to extreme weather conditions.

In January, the West saw the biggest month-to-month decline (-13.2 percent) to 102.9 from 118.5 in December. The West also saw the smallest year-over-year increase (1.4 percent) from 101.4 in January 2009.

The Midwest saw the second-biggest month-to-month decline (-8.9 percent) to 81.2 from 89.2 and the second-smallest year-over-year increase (11.8 percent) from 72.6.

The Northeast saw a month-to-month decline (-8.7 percent) to 71.3 from 78.1. It also saw the biggest year-over-year increase, 20.5 percent, from 59.2.

The South saw the smallest month-to-month decrease (-2.1 percent) to 98.1 from 100.2, and the second-biggest year-over-year increase (18 percent) from 83.1.

All numbers are seasonally adjusted and pertain to the four regions designated by U.S. Census.

Yun said he expects existing-home sales to ramp up in April, May and June. To qualify for the homebuyer tax credit, homebuyers must have signed a contract by April 30 and close by June 30.

"The real question is what happens in the second half of the year. If there is sufficient job creation, housing can become self-sustaining with stable to modestly rising home prices because inventory has been trending downward."

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