WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sales of U.S. existing homes slipped in February to their lowest level since July 2012 as severe winter weather, rising prices and a tight supply of homes discouraged buyers.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales declined 0.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.6 million. That was the sixth decline in the past seven months.

Freezing temperatures and snowstorms likely kept many buyers from visiting open houses. And higher mortgage rates have weighed on sales since last fall.

Still, there were some signs that the market could pick up in the coming months. Sales improved in the South and West, where weather was less of a factor. And more people decided to sell, boosting the supply of available homes 6.4 percent to 2 million.

"Once we get past this messy period, housing should assume its role in supporting overall growth," Jennifer Lee, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note to clients.

Home prices are rising despite the sluggish sales, a sign that the number of homes for sale remains low. The median sales price has risen 9.1 percent in the past year, the Realtors said, to $189,000.

Investors are accounting for an increasing share of purchases, while first-time buyers remain historically low. All-cash sales, which are mostly by investors, rose to 35 percent of purchases in February, up from 32 percent a year ago.


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