The number of buyers who agreed to purchase previously occupied homes rose sharply in February, far exceeding expectations, in a sign that the housing market may be coming back from the winter doldrums.

The National Association of Realtors says its seasonally adjusted index of sales agreements rose 8.2 percent from January to a February reading of 97.6. January's reading was revised slightly downward to 90.2.

Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected the index would fall slightly to 90.3. The index is considered a barometer for future sales activity because there is typically a one- to two- month lag between a signed sales contract and a completed deal.

The figures were not unexpected. Late last week, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that with special tax credits for home purchases set to expire at the end of April, applications for loans to purchase homes were at their highest level in five months.

Releasing a survey for the week that ended Friday, the Mortgage Bankers Association said its seasonally adjusted purchase index rose 6.8 percent from a week earlier.

Michael Fratantoni, the group's vice president of research and economics, noted that a similar surge took place in October, when an $8,000 credit for first-time buyers was set to run out. As an economic stimulus measure, Congress extended the program through April 30 and added a $6,500 tax credit for some trade-up buyers.

"We expect to see gains in the next few months, with the tax credit helping to increase sales," Julia Coronado, a senior economist at BNP Paribas in New York, told Bloomberg News Friday. "Even with all the policy support, we're not getting the kind of strong housing recovery we'd expected. We'll inch our way forward."

This story is supplemented with reporting from Newsday archives.

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