U.S. sales of previously occupied homes rose in February to their fastest pace in more than three years, and more people put their homes on the market. The increases suggest a growing number of Americans believe the housing recovery will strengthen.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales increased 0.8 percent in February from January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million. That was the fastest sales pace since November 2009, when a temporary home buyer tax credit boosted sales.
The February sales pace was also 10.2 percent higher than the same month a year ago.
Steady hiring and near-record-low mortgage rates have helped boost sales and prices in most markets. The Realtors' group says the median price for a home sold in February was $173,600. That's up 11.6 percent from a year ago.
More people are also starting to put their homes on the market, which could help sales in the coming months.
The number of available homes for sale rose 10 percent last month, the first monthly gain since April. Even with the gain, the inventory of homes for sale was still 19 percent below a year ago.
Jeff Kolko, chief economist at online real estate site Trulia, said the increase in houses for sale is a good sign. It suggests more homeowners are gaining confidence in the recovery. That could end an inventory squeeze that has held back sales in many markets.
By region, sales of previously owned homes were up 2.6 percent in both the South and the West. Sales fell 3.1 percent in the Northeast and 1.7 percent in the Midwest, possibly in part because of adverse weather.
Even with the gains, sales nationally remain below the 5.5 million that economists associate with healthy markets.
One concern is that few first-time buyers, who are critical to a sustainable housing recovery, are entering the market. They made up only 30 percent of sales in February. That's well below the 40 percent typical in a healthy market.