Home resales surged last month to the highest level in nearly three years, reflecting an extraordinary level of federal support that has pulled the housing market back from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Buyers were racing to complete their sales before the original expiration date of a tax credit for first-time buyers that was scheduled to expire Nov. 30. Last month, Congress decided to extend and expand the credit to ensure the housing market could sustain its recovery.
The Realtors estimated that about 2 million homebuyers have taken advantage of the credit so far and forecasts that another 2.4 million will use it by the middle of next year. First-time buyers made up about half of all transactions last month, driving sales up 44 percent above last year's levels, a record jump.
Sales are now up 46 percent from the bottom in January, but down 10 percent from the peak more than four years ago.
The median sales price was $172,600, down 4.3 percent from a year earlier, and up 0.2 percent from October.
"Things are stabilizing," said Pete Flint, chief executive of real estate Web site Trulia.com. "There is a significant amount of buyer interest out there."
November sales rose 7.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.54 million, from a downwardly revised pace of 6.09 million in October.
Sales had been expected to rise to an annual pace of 6.25 million, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.
The inventory of unsold homes on the market fell about 1 percent to 3.5 million. That's a healthy 6.5 month supply at the current sales pace, the lowest level in three years.
Besides the existing tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers, homeowners who have lived in their current properties for at least five years can now claim a tax credit of up to $6,500 if they relocate. To qualify, buyers must sign a purchase agreement by April 30.
Postponing the deadline could mean sales will drop during the winter months and recover in the spring.
"Buyers have no sense of urgency now," said Gary DeRosa, an agent with ZipRealty Inc. in Seattle.