August Existing-Home Sales Beat Economists' Expectations

Resales jump nearly 8 percent, suggesting upturn in the housing market is no fluke.

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Middle-Class Housing

It seems the housing market has been living up to its role as "one of the only bright spots" in the economy lately.

On the heels of news Wednesday that home builders broke ground on more single-family homes last month, sales of previously-owned homes improved in August as well, rising at their fastest pace in more than two years, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Home resales jumped almost 8 percent in August—up 9 percent over August 2011 numbers—beating out analysts' expectations and firming up the notion that the good numbers out of the housing market aren't just a fluke.

Meanwhile, median home prices nationwide also strengthened, rising 9.5 percent from a year ago to about $187,400. The August increase is the sixth consecutive month of year-over-year price increases and the strongest rise since January 2006.

[Read: Analysts See Bright Future for Big Home Builders.]

Experts noted that a smaller share of foreclosures sold partly explains the sharp rise in prices. Foreclosures and other distressed properties tend to sell at hefty discounts, which skew property value data down—when fewer foreclosures are sold, there is less downward drag on prices. While that's a good thing for sellers and the millions of Americans with underwater mortgages, the specter of more than just a trickle of foreclosures armed with the potential to push down prices again still remains.

Concerns that a shrinking inventory of homes for sale could crimp further gains in the housing market also linger. In the past, housing market experts have blamed the dearth of affordable homes on the market for stunting better growth in the broader housing market.

The number of existing homes on the market rose almost 3 percent, according to NAR, which means at the current sales pace there's just a six-month supply of homes for sale, down from more than an eight-month supply a year ago. But inventory shortages seem to be concentrated, with the West and parts of Florida feeling most of the brunt of rising prices fueled by too few homes for sale.

[Read: Builder Confidence Jumps to 6-Year High.]

"It's a serious issue in tight markets where vacancies are low and construction is difficult due to a lack of available land, geography, or regulations," Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia, said in an E-mail. "Nationally, though, inventory is near long-term normal levels, and vacancies are getting closer to normal."

"Those are important milestones for the housing recovery," he added.

Realtors again cited still-strict credit standards as a leading factor involuntarily sidelining not only motivated would-be buyers but the broader economic recovery as well.

"Total sales this year will be 8 to 10 percent above 2011, but some buyers are frustrated with mortgage availability," NAR President Moe Veissi, broker-owner of Veissi & Associates in Miami, said in a statement. "If most of the financially qualified buyers could obtain financing, home sales would be about 10 to 15 percent stronger, and the related economic activity would create several hundred thousand jobs over the period of a year."

Meg Handley is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter at @mmhandley.