After stumbling in February, sales of existing homes rose 3.7 percent in March from the month before, according to a National Association of Realtors report released today.

Completed sales of existing single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops fell 6.3 percent compared to March 2010 — when a federal homebuyer tax credit program elevated sales — to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.1 million units.

"With rising jobs and excellent affordability conditions, we project moderate improvements into 2012, but not every month will show a gain — primarily because some buyers are finding it too difficult to obtain a mortgage," said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, in a statement.

He said the generally upward trend in monthly existing-home sales suggests the housing market is "clearly on a recovery path."

The median price for existing homes nationwide fell 5.9 percent year-over-year in March, to $159,600. Distressed properties, typically sold at a discount, made up 40 percent of sales last month, compared with 35 percent in March 2010.

According to NAR’s housing affordability index, the typical monthly mortgage principal and interest payment for a median-priced existing home is 13 percent of gross household income — the lowest since records began in 1970, the trade group said.

A separate NAR survey found that cash buyers accounted for a record 35 percent of sales in March, up from 27 percent in March 2010. Investors made up 22 percent of sales, up from 19 percent in March 2010. First-time homebuyers bought 33 percent of homes last month, down from 44 percent the same month a year ago.

Unsold inventory rose 1.5 percent month-to-month, to 3.55 million existing homes. That represents an 8.4-month supply at the current sales rate, essentially level with the February supply.

Regionally, the South fared best in March. Sales rose 8.2 percent month-to-month and fell 1 percent year-over-year, to an annual rate of 1.99 million. The region’s median price fell 6.6 percent year-over-year, to $138,200.

Sales in the region rose year-over-year in most price ranges, except in homes between $100,000 and $500,000. Sales of homes under $100,000 rose the most, 13.6 percent, while homes above $1 million rose 12.5 percent. The South was also the only region to see a jump in sales of homes between $500,000 and $1 million.

Sales in the Northeast increased 3.9 percent month-to-month, to 800,000, but fell 12.1 percent year-over-year. The region’s median price declined 3 percent year-over-year, to $232,900. Sales fell year-over-year in all price ranges except for homes above $1 million, which remained essentially flat. 

In the Midwest, sales rose 1 percent month-to-month, to 1.06 million, but fell the most of any region year-over-year, 13.1 percent. Median price fell 7.1 percent year-over-year, to $126,100. Sales dropped year-over-year in all price ranges, with the biggest decline, 25.9 percent, in sales of homes between $100,000 and $250,000.

The West was the only region to see a month-to-month decline in sales, 0.8 percent to 1.25 million. Sales in the region fell 3.1 percent year-over-year. The West also saw the biggest year-over-year drop in median price, 11.2 percent, to $192,100.

That drop was largely due to a 44.6 percent year-over-year jump in sales of homes under $100,000 in the region. Every other price range except that of homes above $1 million saw sales decrease last month. Sales of homes above $1 million rose 6.2 percent year-over-year.

Homes under $250,000 made up 69.6 percent of overall sales nationwide in March.

Of 19 major metro areas, St. Louis saw the biggest declines in both sales and median price, both falling 20 percent year-over-year.

Only Baltimore and Phoenix saw year-over-year sales jumps, 6.3 percent and 9.5 percent, respectively, though each saw its median price drop 12.5 percent.

Median price rose year-over-year only in San Antonio and Washington, D.C., last month: 3.6 percent and 1 percent respectively.

NAR’s existing-home sales figures are estimated using a method that may overstate home sales by as much as 20 percent, according to mortgage and property data aggregator CoreLogic.

NAR has said it is working on making some benchmark revisions to its historic sales data sometime this year. According to economics blog Calculated Risk, the numbers reported today "will probably be revised down significantly, but they are still useful on a month-to-month basis."

In a separate report released by the California Association of Realtors today, pending home sales in the state rose 15.2 percent month-to-month in March, and remained essentially flat year-over-year.

Market share of distressed property sales in the state last month remained flat from March 2010, at 51 percent.

The statewide median price of nondistressed properties sold in March was $386,500, 41 percent higher than the short-sale median price of $274,700, and 88 percent higher than the March REO median price of $205,000, the report said.

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