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A home for sale is shown in Glenview, Ill., on Jan. 5. U.S. sales of previously occupied homes rose in January to the second-highest level in three years.

By Martin Crutsinger, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) U.S. sales of previously occupied homes rose in January to the second-highest level in three years, a sign the housing market is maintaining its recovery and helping to bolster the economy.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales rose 0.4 percent in January compared with December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.92 million. That was the second-highest sales pace since November 2009, when a temporary home buyer tax credit had temporarily boosted sales. The median price for a home sold in January was $173,600, an increase of 12.3 percent from a year ago.

Analysts say purchases would be higher if more homes were available. The supply of homes for sale dropped to nearly an eight-year low in January.

In December, sales declined to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.94 million from 4.99 million in November. The drop was linked, in part, to the limited supply of homes for sale.

For all of 2012, sales rose to 4.65 million, 9.2 percent more than in 2011 and the most since 2007. But even with the gain, sales were below the 5.5 million that economists associate with a healthy market.

Analysts foresee further improvement this year. Steady hiring and near-record-low mortgage rates have helped boost sales and prices in most markets. Still, sales are being held back by the low supply.

And first-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, made up only 30 percent of sales in December. That's well below the 40 percent typical in a healthy market.

Since the housing bubble burst more than six years ago, banks have adopted tighter credit standards and are requiring larger down payments. That's left many would-be buyers unable to qualify for super-low mortgage rates.

The average U.S. rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.53 percent. That's near the 3.31 percent reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971.

Rising demand for homes is encouraging builders to step up production. In January, builders started construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000 homes. That was down from December but was still the third-highest pace since mid-2008 and nearly 24 percent above the level a year ago.

And applications for building permits, a sign of future construction, rose in January to their highest point since June 2008.