Sales of existing homes slipped from February to March after an adjustment for seasonal variations, but were up from the same time a year ago, according to the latest monthly report from the National Association of Realtors.

Sales of single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums and co-ops rose 5.2 percent year over year last month, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. That’s a 2.6 percent decline from February.

Looking back a year, sales were up 5.2 percent from the 4.26 million-unit pace seen in March 2011.

At a glance: Existing-home sales (March 2012):

Seasonally adjusted annual rate 4.48 million
% change from March 2011 +5.2%
% change from February 2012 -2.6%
National median price $163,800
% change from March 2011 +2.5%
Unsold inventory (months’ supply) 6.3
Share of all-cash buyers 32%
Share of investor buyers 21%
Share of first-time buyers 33%
Share of distressed sales 29%

Source: National Association of Realtors.

"The recovery is happening, though not at a breakout pace, but we have seen nine consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases," said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, in a statement. 

"Existing-home sales are moving up and down in a fairly narrow range that is well above the level of activity during the first half of last year. With job growth, low interest rates, bargain home prices and an improving economy, the pent-up demand is coming to market and we expect housing to be notably better this year."

The national median existing-home price increased 2.5 percent on an annual basis in March, to $163,800. Distressed homes, typically sold at a discount, made up 29 percent of overall sales last month (18 percent were foreclosures and 11 percent were short sales), down from 40 percent in March 2011.

For-sale inventory of existing homes fell 21.8 percent year over year in March, to 2.37 million — a 6.3-month supply at the current sales pace.

"We were expecting a seasonal increase in home listings, but a lack of inventory has suddenly become an issue in several markets with not enough homes for sale in relation to buyer interest," Yun said. 

"Home sales could be held back because of supply factors and not by demand — we’re already seeing this in the Western states and in South Florida."

All-cash buyers, most of whom are investors, accounted for 32 percent of sales last month, down from 35 percent a year ago. Investors made up 21 percent of sales in March, down slightly from 22 percent in March 2011. First-time buyers accounted for a third of transactions last month, the same share as a year ago.

Regionally, the Midwest saw the biggest year-over-year increase in sales in March, 15.9 percent, to an annual level of 1.02 million. Sales in the region remained flat on a monthly basis; every other region saw sales decline month to month. The Midwest saw the second-biggest rise in median sales price compared to a year ago, 5.2 percent, to $132,800.

The South saw the biggest jump in median sales price, 6.2 percent, to $146,500. Existing-home sales dipped 1.1 percent month to month but rose 3.6 percent year over year in March, to 1.75 million.

The Northeast was the only region to see its median sales price decrease year over year last month. The median fell 1.9 percent to $228,300. The region saw the second-biggest annual rise in sales however, 5.5 percent, to 580,000. Sales slipped 1.7 percent from February.

In terms of sales, the West fared the worst in March. It was the only region to see a year-over-year drop in sales, 0.9 percent, to 1.13 million. The West also experienced the biggest month-to-month decline among the regions, 7.4 percent. Its median sales price rose a modest 1.6 percent, to $198,300.

In a separate report released this week, the California Association of Realtors reported the state’s first year-over-year, median-home-price increase in 16 months in March. The median price for an existing, single-family home rose 1.6 percent, to $291,080. The trade group partially attributed the increase to tight inventory levels. CAR’s Unsold Inventory Index fell to 4.1 months in March, down from 5.4 months a year ago.

Sales in California fell 2.3 percent on an annual basis last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 505,360. Homes sold in a median 53.1 days, down from 57 days in March 2011.

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