PhotoSales of previously-owned homes shot higher in March, led by big gains in the Northeast and Midwest.

The National Association of Realtors reports total existing home sales -- completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops -- rose 5.1% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million houses.

“Closings came back in force last month as a greater number of buyers -- mostly in the Northeast and Midwest -- overcame depressed inventory levels and steady price growth to close on a home," said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun.

"Buyer demand remains sturdy in most areas this spring and the mid-priced market is doing quite well. However, sales are softer both at the very low and very high ends of the market because of supply limitations and affordability pressures."

Prices and inventory

The median existing-home price for all housing types in March rose 5.7% from the same month a year ago to $222,700. That's the 49th consecutive month of year-over-year gains. The median is the point at which half of the homes were priced higher and half lower

Total housing inventory at the end of March was up 5.9% to 1.98 million existing homes available for sale, but it is down 1.5% from a year ago. Unsold inventory is at a 4.5-month supply at the current sales pace, versus 4.4 months in February.

"It's clear from today's existing home report that spring has unleashed the pent-up demand held over from 2015," said chief economist Jonathan Smoke. "The majority of buyers responding to our survey questions are looking to buy within the next six months, but the biggest challenge to prospective buyers is the tight supply, and that’s why we’re seeing the age of inventory drop dramatically."

Sales regionally

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast surged 11.1% last month to an annual rate of 700,000 and are now 7.7% above a year ago. The median price was $254,100, a year-over-year gain of 5.8%.
  • In the Midwest, sales rose 9.8% to an annual rate of 1.23 million in March, and are now 0.8% above March 2015. The median price was up 7.0% to $174,800.
  • The South enjoyed a sales gain of 2.7% to an annual rate of 2.25 million in March. Sales there are up 2.3% from March of last year. The median price was $194,400, a gain of 4.6% over a year ago.
  • Sales of previously-owned homes climbed 1.8% in the West to an annual rate of 1.15 million but are down 2.5% from the same time last year. The median price rose 5.9% from March 2015 to $320,800.

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