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The spring recovery in home sales gained further ground in May. Signed contracts to buy existing homes surged 6.1 percent from April, as home prices began to ease slightly. This is the largest monthly gain since April 2010, just before the end of the popular first-time home buyer tax credit. Despite the monthly gain, the so-called Pending Home Sales Index from the National Association of Realtors is down 5.2 percent from May of 2013.
"Sales should exceed an annual pace of five million homes in some of the upcoming months behind favorable mortgage rates, more inventory and improved job creation," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the Realtors. "However, second-half sales growth won't be enough to compensate for the sluggish first quarter and will likely fall below last year's total."
Sales likely benefited from slightly lower mortgage rates. Rates have been expected to rise, as the Federal Reserve continues to scale back its purchases of mortgage-backed securities. Other economic factors, however, including volatility in overseas markets, have kept interest rates low. In June, the average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage has largely been lower than it was a year ago, the first time that has happened since the rate surge in May and June of 2013.
Regionally, the Realtors' pending home sales index jumped 8.8 in the Northeast month-to-month, rose 6.3 percent in the Midwest, rose 4.4 percent in the South and leaped 7.6 percent in the West. Pending sales in all regions, other than the Northeast (which was flat), are lower than they were in May of 2013.
Closed sales of both new and existing homes rose strongly in May as well. The pending sales for May are an indicator of closed sales for May and June, depending on closing times. Closings have been speeding up of late, as mortgage lenders are no longer swamped with refinance business, due to the low rates. Mortgage refinance volume is less than half of what it was a year ago. The Realtors expect total sales in 2014 to fall nearly 3 percent short of 2013 levels.
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—By CNBC's Diana Olick.