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Sales of existing homes rose 2.5 percent in March, the second consecutive monthly increase in response to falling mortgage interest rates, a real estate trade group said Monday.

The National Association of Real-tors said existing single-family homes were sold at a seasonally adjusted rate of 3.33 million units last month"Lower interest rates have stimulated activity, and the first quarter has turned out better than we anticipated," John A. Tuccillo, chief economist of the association, said in a statement.

Rates for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages, which had risen above 11.5 percent before the October stock market crash, edged below 10 percent in February and March. They have been rising in April and were 10.3 percent last week.

The increase in March followed an identical 2.5 percent rise in February and three consecutive monthly declines before that. However, the sales level was still 9.8 percent below levels last year when interest rates were at a nine-year low.

Tuccillo said he expected home sales to rise again this month.

The sales increase was accompanied by a 4.1 percent rise in prices to a median, or midpoint, of $88,700, up from $88,100 in February.

Sales were led by a 9.6 percent advance in the West and a 6.7 percent boost in the South. Sales were unchanged in the Northeast and down 3.4 percent in the Midwest.