A National Association of Realtors index that tracks pending sales of existing homes rose 5.1 percent in March but dropped 11.4 percent compared to the same month last year.

Also today, NAR released its latest annual forecast, which anticipates a 1.8 percent drop in the median price of U.S. existing homes — the previous forecast, released in March, had anticipated a 1 percent drop in the median U.S. existing-home price.

Regionally, the Pending Home Sales Index — which is based on sales for which the contract has been signed but the transaction has not yet closed — rose 10.3 percent in the South, 3.1 percent in the West and 3 percent in the Midwest while dipping 3.2 percent in the Northeast from February to March.

And the index dropped 18.4 percent in the Northeast, 16.6 percent in the Midwest, 10.5 percent in the South and 4.1 percent in the West on a year-over-year basis in March.

An index score of 100 is equal to the average level of contract activity during 2001, according to NAR, which was the first year of data to be examined for the index. The index stood at 94.1 in March 2011, compared to 89.5 in February and 106.2 in March 2010. Regionally, the index score was 63.4 in the Northeast, 83.5 in the Midwest, 103.7 in the West and 110.2 in the South in March 2011.

In its economic forecast, NAR anticipates the median existing-home price will be $169,800 this year, down from $172,900 in 2010, and is expected to rise 3.9 percent, to $176,500, in 2012. Sales of existing homes are expected to climb 7.7 percent this year, to 5.28 million, and to climb another 5.9 percent in 2012, to 5.6 million.

NAR expects the median new-home price will climb 1.4 percent this year, to $224,100, and to rise another 3.1 percent in 2012, to $231,000. In its previous outlook, released last month, NAR had forecast a new-home price of $222,300 in 2011.

New single-family home sales are expected to dip 0.5 percent this year, to 320,000, according to the latest economic outlook, and to rise a whopping 52 percent in 2012, to 487,000.

NAR also expects the national unemployment rate to average 8.8 percent in 2011, an improvement from the 9.6 percent rate in 2010, and to improve to 8.6 percent in 2012. The interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is expected to average 5.2 percent this year, and to climb to 6 percent in 2011.

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