WASHINGTON -- Sales of existing single-family homes dipped slightly in February from the strong pace of the month prior, but remain at exceptionally high levels, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Existing-home sales edged down 0.4% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million units from an upward-revised level of 5.20 million units in January. Last month's sales activity was 2.6% below the 5.32-million unit pace in February 2000. The highest monthly pace on record is an annual rate of 5.45 million units, recorded in June 1999.

“The interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage has dropped one-and-a quarter percentage points in the last year -- that means there are about 300,000 additional households who can afford to buy a home today that couldn't qualify for a loan a year ago,” said Dr. David Lereah, NAR's chief economist. “Although the slowing economy is causing a little drag on the market, consumers who are confident about their own future are going ahead with big-ticket purchases like homes and cars.”

“Mortgage interest rates are currently near 30-year lows, which is opening the door to people who have been at the margins of qualifying for a loan,” added NAR President Richard A. Mendenhall. “Of course, strong sales to first-time buyers permit people to trade-up to larger homes, which is why housing market activity remains close to historic highs. The current sales pace is only 5% below the all-time record.”

Regionally, home resales in the West rose 3.1% from January to an annual rate of 1.33 million units in February; the pace was 3.6% below February 2000. The median existing-home price in the West was $183,400, up 6% percent from the same month a year earlier.

In the Midwest, homes were reselling at an annual rate of 1.16 million units in February, up 1.8% from January; they were 1.7% below February 2000. The median price in the Midwest was $122,300, up 5.2% from a year ago.

The existing-home sales pace in the South declined 2.8% in February to an annual rate of 2.05 million units; they were 1% below February 2000. The median price of an existing home in the South was $128,800, which was 4% higher than February 2000.

In the Northeast, existing-home sales slipped 3% from January to a pace of 640,000 units in February; the rate was 5.9% below February 2000.