Sales of existing single-family homes rose 4% in March on a seasonally adjusted annual basis, signaling a lackluster start to the spring home buying season.

However, on an unadjusted basis, sales of existing units rose an impressive 36% from February to March.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported Wednesday morning that sales of previously owned single-family homes rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.45 million in March from a 4.28 million rate in February.

The adjusted sales figures show single-digit gains in three of the four geographic regions. In the West, sales were unchanged from February to March.

On an unadjusted basis, sale increases ranged from 22% in the Northeast to 43% in the West.

Whether adjusted or unadjusted, the NAR's sales numbers are down by nearly 7% from a year ago.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun once again blamed tight lending standards for holding back the recovery in housing. He pointed out that the average credit score on a Fannie/Freddie loan is 760. For FHA it's slightly lower at 700.

"Although home sales are coming back without a federal stimulus, sales would be notably stronger if mortgage lending would return to the normal, safe standards that were in place a decade ago — before the loose lending practices that created the unprecedented boom and bust cycle," Yun said.

In other housing news,RE/MAX said  that home sales jumped nearly 39% in March and that almost all of the 54 metropolitan markets it tracks experienced double-digit gains compared to February.

The exception was New York, which registered only an 8% increase in sales on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, according to the monthly RE/MAX Housing Report.

However, sales are still down 8.2% from March 2010, a time when homebuyers still had access to federal tax credits for buying a home.

"It's encouraging that home sales are rising at a faster pace than we would normally see this time of year, and they're doing so without any artificial stimulus," said RE/MAX chief executive Margaret Kelly.

Last month, RE/MAX reported that existing home sales rose 3.3% in February after tumbling 28% from December to January. The Denver-based firm also reported bad news: that home prices continued to fall in March, dropping 8.2% from a year ago.

"If sales continue at this pace into the traditional spring and summer buying season, we would expect to see prices follow as well," Kelly said.

Meanwhile, the supply of homes on the market fell to a rate of 7.1-months in March from 9.3-months in February. The inventory drop is partially due to declining foreclosures.

 

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