WASHINGTON — Americans bought more previously owned homes in April, a hopeful sign that the weak housing market is gradually improving.
The National Association of Realtors says home sales rose 3.4 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.62 million.
That brings home sales back near the pace in January and February — which was the best winter for sales in five years. Still, sales are well below the nearly 6 million per year that economists equate with healthy markets.
A mild winter encouraged some people to buy homes earlier. That drove up sales in January and February, while making March weaker.
The median price for homes sold in April rose to $177,400, up 10.1 percent from a year ago.
Modest increases in home sales are the latest sign that the market could be starting to turn around nearly five years after the housing bubble burst.
The sales pace in January was the highest since May 2010 — when a popular home-buying tax credit expired. Builders are more confident and are starting to builder more homes. Mortgage rates have never been cheaper. And the job market is improving, which has made more people open to buying a home.
Employers have added 1 million jobs in the past five months. And unemployment has dropped a full percentage point since August, from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent in April.
Still, many would-be buyers are having difficulty qualifying for home loans or can’t afford the larger down payments being required by banks.
Even some would-be home buyers are holding off because they fear that home prices could keep falling.
Previously occupied homes represent 80 percent of the overall home market.
Builders have grown more confident since last fall, in part because more people have expressed an interest in buying a home. In May, builder optimism rose to the highest level in five years, according to the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index.
Last week, the Commerce Department reported that builders started work on more homes and apartments in April, pushing housing construction to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 717,000 homes. That was near a rate of 720,000 homes and apartments being built in January, which had been a three-year high. But even with the recent strength, housing construction remains at roughly half the pace that economists consider a healthy market.
Many economists believe that 2012 could be the year that housing finally makes a positive contribution to overall economic growth. That hasn’t happened since 2005, shortly before the housing boom went bust.