(Bloomberg) — More Americans signed contracts to purchase
previously owned U.S. homes in January, rounding out a week of
housing data that depicted an uneven recovery.

The index of pending sales climbed 1.7 percent after a 1.5
percent drop the prior month that was smaller than initially
estimated, figures from the National Association of Realtors
showed Friday in Washington. The median forecast of 38
economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 2 percent rise.

Employment gains and near record-low mortgage rates will
help to underpin demand. A lack of properties for sale, higher
prices and still-tight credit are hurdles for some customers as
first-time buyers remain reluctant to enter the market.

“All indications point to modest sales gains as we head
into the spring buying season,” Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief
economist, said in a statement. “However, the pace will greatly
depend on how much upward pressure the impact of low inventory
will have on home prices.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from no change to
an increase of 5 percent. The Realtors’ group revised the
December data from a previously reported 3.7 percent decrease.

Three of four regions saw an increase, led by 3.2 percent
in the South, the report showed. Pending sales gained 2.2
percent in the West and 0.1 percent in the Northeast and fell
0.7 percent in the Midwest.

Compared with a year earlier, the index increased 6.5
percent on an unadjusted basis. It was projected to climb 8.7
percent, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

Sales Index

The pending sales gauge was 104.2 on a seasonally adjusted
basis, the highest since August 2013. A reading of 100
corresponds to the average level of contract activity in 2001,
or “historically healthy” home-buying traffic, according to
the NAR.

Economists consider pending sales a leading indicator
because it tracks contract signings, as opposed to purchases of
existing homes, which are tabulated when a deal closes,
typically a month or two later.

The latter makes up more than 90 percent of the housing
market. Re-sales dropped 4.9 percent in January from the
previous month as broad-based price increases put more
properties out of reach for American homebuyers, according to
NAR data released Feb. 23.

Another report from the Commerce Department on Feb. 25
showed new-home sales in January held close to the fastest pace
in more than six years, consistent with slow and steady progress
that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. housing market since early
2012. New-home sales account for about 7 percent of the
residential market and are tabulated when contracts are signed,
making them a timelier barometer than existing home sales.

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Nina Glinski in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Carlos Torres at
Scott Lanman, Brendan Murray