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Ahead of the Bell: US Existing Home Sales

This Monday, May 19, 2014 photo shows a duplex home for sale in the Coconut Grove neighborhood in Miami. The National Association of Realtors reports on existing-home sales in April on Thursday, May 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The National Association of Realtors reports on sales of existing homes in April. The report is scheduled for release Thursday at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

INCREASE EXPECTED: Economists forecast that sales rose 2.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.69 million, according to a survey by FactSet. Home-buying has fallen in seven of the past eight months.

PACE STILL SLOW: The sales rate likely improved from March, when the annual rate of buying fell to 4.59 million, the lowest level since July 2012. But purchases continue to run significantly below their 2013 pace, when 5.1 million existing-homes were bought. That's still below the 5.5 million that is consistent with a healthy housing market.

Snowstorms and cold weather delayed sales in the Midwest and Northeast during first two months of 2014. Would-be buyers are also wrestling with higher prices and rising interest rates over the past 12 months. Still, most economists believe the usual spring bounce-back began in April

Signed contracts to buy homes rose in March after eight straight monthly declines. Signed contracts are usually followed in one to two months by a completed sale, so the March increase suggests that sales improved in April.

Existing-home sales began to slow in the second half of 2013 as mortgage rates crept up from historic lows. Higher home prices, partly due to meager home listings, began to push some buyers out of the market.

But many homebuyers remained in the market with nowhere else to go and the median home price is up 7.9 percent since March 2013 to $198,500.

Average rates for fixed, 30-year mortgages last week were 4.2 percent, compared to 3.51 percent a year ago. "Rising mortgage rates can account for much of the sluggishness in existing home sales over the past year," John Krainer, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, wrote is this week.

Rates have steadily fallen by 0.33 percentage points since January 2014, although that has yet to boost purchases. An index measuring applications for new mortgages fell 3 percent over the past week and 12 percent over the past year, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Wednesday.