The National Association of Realtors said Tuesday its seasonally adjusted index of sales contracts signed in July for previously occupied homes rose 3.2 percent to 97.6. It was the sixth straight increase and 12 percent above the same month last year.
Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected the index would edge up to 96.5.
Typically there is a one- to two-month lag between a contract and a done deal, so the index is a barometer of how sales completed this month and next will turn out. However, delays in getting mortgages approved and appraisals completed have lengthened the time it takes to close a deal in many cases.
The U.S. housing market is rebounding more rapidly than expected from its historic bust, as low prices and the looming expiration on Nov. 30 of a first-time homebuyers tax credit of up to $8,000 have spurred sales. Home prices in most of the country have started to rise from the depths of the housing slump.
But analysts predict sales will drop off when the tax credit expires, or if mortgage rates rise from near-record lows. Foreclosures also continue to rise, and banks are forced to sell those properties at deep discounts, pushing prices down.
The realtors group projects that around 2 million first-time buyers will take advantage of the credit this year, and says it is spurring 350,000 additional sales that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Nationally, home prices in the second quarter posted their first quarterly increase in three years, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller national index released last week.
While home prices are still 30 percent below the mid-2006 peak, their new direction should bring relief to both lenders and homeowners. Falling property values have wiped out $4 trillion in homeowner equity, and thousands have walked away from homes that are worth far less than their mortgage balance.