Americans bought fewer previously owned homes in March, a reminder that the housing market remains weak.
The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that home sales fell 2.6 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million. That followed a revised 4.6 million sold in February.
A mild winter may have encouraged more people to buy earlier, essentially stealing sales from March.
The first three months of 2012 made up the best winter for sales in five years. The increase offers some encouragement ahead of the spring-buying season. Still, sales remain far below the 6 million per year that economists equate with healthy markets.
First-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, rose to 33 percent of all purchases last month. In healthy markets, they make up at least 40 percent.
The supply of homes on the market fell 1.3 percent last month to 2.37 million, which could help drive up prices further in the coming months.
One reason is that home foreclosures declined, although they are still high. Homes at risk of foreclosure made up 29 percent of sales, down from 34 percent in February. In healthier markets, foreclosures make up less than 10 percent of sales.
There have been other signs in recent months that the housing market is slowly improving.
Builders are laying plans to construct more homes in 2012 than at any other point in the past 3 1/2 years. More jobs and a better outlook among buyers could also make 2012 the first year since 2008 that construction adds to the U.S. economy.
The unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.2 percent last month. Employers added an average of 212,000 jobs a month from January through March.
Mortgage rates are hovering just above record lows. And the median sales price of homes rose for the second straight month in March, to $163,800.
Sales fell across most of the country. They were unchanged on a seasonal basis in the Midwest but fell by 1.1 percent in the South, 1.7 percent in the Northeast and 7.4 percent in the West.