Existing home sales increased 7.2% in July to a seasonally adjusted 5.24 million-unit rate, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) announced this morning. This was the first time in five years that sales rose four straight months.

The sales rise to 5.24 million, was larger than the gain to a 5.00 million unit pace predicted by Thomson Reuters’ poll of economists and followed an unrevised 3.6% increase to 4.89 million units in June.

On a year-over-year basis, sales overall were up 5.0% from a 4.99 million unit sales pace last July.

“The housing market has decisively turned for the better,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. “A combination of first-time buyers taking advantage of the housing stimulus tax credit and greatly improved affordability conditions are contributing to higher sales.”

Sales rose in three of the four regions of the country in July, increasing 13.4% in the Northeast to 930,000, climbing 10.9% to 1.22 million units in the Midwest; and rising 7.1% in the South to 1.95 million. In the West sales fell 1.7% to 1.13 million units, NAR said.

Inventory levels soared 7.3% at the end of July, to 4.091 million existing homes for sale, representing a 9.4-month supply at the current sales pace, unchanged from 9.4 months in last month’s report.

Meanwhile, the median existing home price was $178,400 in July, off 2.0% from the prior month, when the median price was $182,000, but slid 15.1% year-over-year from a $210,100 level.

The average existing home price was $237,400 in July, up 4.2% from the prior month, when the average price was $227,900, and down 6.2% year-over-year from a $253,000 level.

The national average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 5.22%, down from June’s 5.42%, NAR said. The rate was 6.43% in July 2008.

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