WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Home resales retreated in September from a two-year high, a reminder that America's housing sector is a long way from a full recovery despite recent signs of improvement.
The National Association of Realtors said on Friday that existing home sales dropped a modest 1.7 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.75 million units, matching the median forecast in a Reuters poll.
Housing has been a relative bright spot in the U.S. economy this year, and Friday's data did not point to a reversal in that trend. The reading for August was revised slightly higher to show resales at a 4.83 million-unit annual rate.
"While these numbers bounce around, there is no doubt that this is showing the housing market is improving," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.
Nationwide, the median price for a home resale was $183,900 in September, up 11.3 percent from a year earlier as fewer people sold their homes under distressed conditions compared to a year earlier. Distressed sales include foreclosures.
U.S. stocks opened lower on Friday following disappointing results from Microsoft and McDonald's, while prices on U.S. treasuries edged higher.
America's economy has shown signs of faster growth in recent months as the jobless rate has fallen and retail sales data has pointed to stronger consumer spending.
The nation's inventory of homes - those for sale on the market - fell 3.3 percent during the month to 2.32 million.
At the current pace of sales, inventories would be exhausted in 5.9 months, the lowest rate since March 2006, the NAR said.
Lawrence Yun, an economist at the NAR, said the low level of inventories was partially due to a lack of new homes. With inventories of new homes still weak - groundbreaking on new homes remains 60 percent below its 2006 peak - sales are more concentrated in the market for existing homes.
Still, home building could add to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005. Existing home sales also help growth, as people furnish the homes they buy and realtors charge commissions.
This week, Goldman Sachs estimated growth in the housing sector will likely add about a quarter percentage point to economic growth this year and could add a half point in 2013.
In a bid to help the economy by encouraging people to buy homes, the Fed said last month it would buy $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities every month until the jobs outlook improves substantially.
The Fed's efforts to lower borrowing costs have pushed interest rates on 30-year mortgages to all-time lows.
In September, distressed sales fell to 24 percent of total sales from 30 percent a year ago.
Still, the share of distressed sales, which also include those where the sales price was below the amount owed on the home, increased in September of this year from 22 percent in August.
(Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)