WASHINGTON -- Americans bought fewer previously owned homes in March, a reminder that the housing market remains weak.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that home sales fell 2.6 percent in March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. That was down from a revised 4.6 million for February.
A mild winter may have encouraged more people to buy earlier, essentially stealing sales from March.
More purchases in January and February made this the best winter for sales in five years. The increase offered some encouragement ahead of the spring-buying season.
Even with the gains, sales remain far below the 6 million a year that economists equate with healthy markets. And the weaker March figures suggest any momentum from the winter has stalled, said Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG in New York.
"We are most certainly not set to declare that the housing recovery is over, but a strong start to the spring selling season is simply not in the data," Mr. Greenhaus said.
There were some signs of modest improvement.
First-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, rose to 33 percent of all purchases last month. In healthy markets, they make up at least 40 percent.
The supply of homes on the market fell 1.3 percent last month to 2.37 million. A decline in the supply typically encourages more people to put homes up for sale. That generally improves the overall quality of the homes on the market, which drives prices higher.
The share of homes at risk of foreclosure fell to 29 percent of sales, down from 34 percent in February but still high. In healthier markets, foreclosures typically are under 10 percent of sales.
Sales fell across most of the country. They were unchanged on a seasonal basis in the Midwest but fell by 1.1 percent in the South, 1.7 percent in the Northeast, and 7.4 percent in the West.
Builders are laying plans to construct more homes in 2012 than at any other point in the past 3 1/2 years. More jobs and a better outlook among buyers could make 2012 the first year since 2008 that construction adds to the U.S. economy.
Mortgage rates hover just above record lows. And in March the median sale price rose for the second straight month, to $163,800.
Sales are measured when buyers close on homes. Some deals have been scuttled before closing after banks declined mortgage applications, home inspectors found problems, appraisals showed a home was worth less than the bid, or a buyer lost a job.