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SALES OF EXISTING HOMES JUMP 5.8%

Sales of previously owned homes rose 5.8 percent in March, the first advance in three months, as consumers were lured back into the housing market by falling mortgage rates.

Homebuyers in every region of the nation took advantage of the more affordable environment, the National Association of Realtors reported Tuesday.Sales of existing homes totaled 3.62 million at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, up from 3.42 million in February, when they fell 5.3 percent to the lowest level since 3.41 million in August 1992.

Sales, which fell 4 percent in January, had not risen since posting a 1.9 percent gain, to a 3.76 million rate, in December. As a result, sales in March were 11.9 percent below those of a year earlier, when the rate was 4.11 million.

"The spring homebuying season is off to a promising start," said Realtors President Edmund G. Woods Jr. "Buyers who left the market appear to be coming back" as mortgage rates fall and make housing less expensive.

According to the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 8.45 percent in March, down from 8.77 percent in February and 9.15 percent in January. Mortgage rates have continued to fall, dropping to 8.24 percent last week, lowest in more than a year.

The monthly payment on a $100,000 mortgage with an 8 percent rate is $734, while the payment on the same loan with a 9 percent rate is $805, a difference of $71.