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SALES OF EXISTING HOMES RISE TO HIGHEST LEVEL IN 18 MONTHS

Sales of existing homes continued to improve in May, rising 6.0 percent to their highest level in 18 months, a real estate trade group said. It was the fourth consecutive gain.

The National Association of Realtors said sales of previously owned single-family homes totaled a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.51 million, up from 3.31 million a month earlier.May sales were the highest since 3.56 million units were sold at an annual rate in December 1989.

Existing home sales have risen each month since January, when most analysts say the housing recession ended. They posted gains of 9 percent in February and 1.9 percent in March.

Since January, new home sales and housing starts also have improved. And applications for building permits - a barometer of future activity - have risen steadily as well.

"Low mortgage rates and increased consumer confidence are fueling momentum in the housing market and allowing entry-level buyers to finally get up the courage to dive into the market," said Harley E. Rouda, the Realtors president.

"Moreover, because housing is a major economic force, it is likely that improvements in the housing market will stimulate the rest of the economy," he added.

According to surveys by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., 30-year conventional, fixed-rate mortgages averaged 9.47 percent in May, down nearly one percentage point from the same month in 1990.

But the median price of an existing home was $99,700, up 4.7 percent from the May 1990 price although 0.6 percent below that of April. The median price means half of the homes cost more, half less.

All regions posted gains except the Northeast, where sales dropped 1.9 percent from April to a rate of 530,000 units. The $143,600 median price was 1.9 percent above that of May 1990.

Sales in the Midwest jumped 7.7 percent to a 980,000 rate. The median price was $77,100, up 5.9 percent from a year earlier.

In the West, sales rose 7.0 percent to a 610,000 rate. But the median price fell 1.2 percent in the last year to $140,100.

The South posted a 1.39 million sales rate, up 6.9 percent from April. The median price of $89,400 was 5.2 percent above May 1990.