Existing Home Sales Remain Strong in Sept.

Sales of existing U.S. homes were unchanged in September at a better-than-expected 7.28 million unit pace, as strong post-Katrina (search) sales in the South helped offset weaker activity elsewhere, the National Association of Realtors said on Tuesday.

Sales of the previously owned homes were flat compared with August's downwardly revised 7.28 million unit pace, the National Association of Realtors (search) said. That figure includes both single-family homes and condominiums.

Analysts had expected overall sales to decline to a 7.20 million unit pace from the originally reported 7.29 million unit pace in August.

Sales would have been lower in September without the strong purchase activity reported for areas around the hurricane-hit zone, the Realtors' chief economist said. For example, while sales dropped 85 percent in New Orleans, Baton Rouge reported a 150 percent increase, the group said.

"The outlook for housing in my opinion is mixed," said David Lereah, the group's chief economist, citing strong construction data but rising interest rates that are expected to dampen buyer demand.

"There's some air coming out of these hot markets," Lereah said, noting he expects some slowing in home sales and price appreciation. "Going forward we're looking for a soft landing in the housing sector."

But Lereah noted he did not see any "hot markets where balloons are about to burst."

Low mortgage rates have supported a years-long rally in the U.S. housing market (search), sending sales and construction to record highs. According to Freddie Mac (FRE) data cited by the Realtors, average 30-year fixed mortgage rates were 5.77 percent in September, down from 5.82 percent in August but up from the 5.75 percent rate a year ago.

In September, the national median home price rose to $212,000, up 13.4 percent from a year ago, the report showed.

The inventory of homes available for sale edged up 0.3 percent to 2.849 million existing homes. September's level equates to 4.7 months' supply at the current sales pace.

Regionally, sales rose 3.7 percent in the South and 0.8 percent in the Northeast but fell 3.0 percent in the Midwest and 4.1 percent in the West.