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Good news on U.S. housing market, for a change

Sales of new homes in February climbed to a seven-year high, the government reported Tuesday, with the increase topping analysts' expectations.

"This is a huge surprise, in the right direction, for once," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said in a note. "These data are very encouraging, and might mean that the strength in the labor market is finally starting to percolate into housing."

Purchases rose 7.8 percent to a 539,000 annualized rate, the largest jump since February 2008, according to data from the Commerce Department, which revised the prior month reading up to a 500,000 pace from an initial estimate of 481,000.

"The numbers are high for what we've seen over the past eight years, but below what normal is, which is 800,000 to 900,000, and still below 600,000, which considering the market crashed nine years ago is pretty amazing," Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS, told CBS MoneyWatch.

"There is a chance of really strong housing numbers, which may be showing up for the first time in these numbers. But we need two to three months before we can say whether a new trend is being established," Newport added.

The median sales price of a new home rose 2.6 percent from February 2014 to $275,500, according to the report, with demand for new homes strongest in the Northeast, which recorded a 153 percent rise.

"That big number happened because there was cold weather in January, and in Boston a lot of realty offices shut down because of the snowstorms, so we had a drop in January, and then a bump up in February," Newport said.

New-home sales rose 10.1 percent in the South last month, and declined in the Midwest and West, according to the report.

The report comes a day after the National Association of Realtors reported sales of previously owned homes rose 1.2 percent to a 4.88 million annual rate in February, short of a 5 million annual rate in February for a second month.

"We've seen a bunch of disappointing housing reports, but [Tuesday's report] is a pretty good one, so the trends are encouraging," said Newport.

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