WASHINGTON-- Economists for the National Association of Realtors (NRA) and for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have forecasted a strong year for the housing market.

David Lereah, chief economist for the NAR, said he expects sales of existing homes in the range of 5.25 million to 5.35 million units for the year, possibly exceeding last year's record 5.30 million.

Sales of new homes are expected to decline to somewhere between 860,000 and 890,000 from last year's record 909,000, Lereah said. He predicted existing home prices would rise 4.4 percent to 5.5 percent in 2002.

David Seiders, chief economist for the NAHB, said housing activity is likely to decrease slightly from its hot pace of the first two months of the year, when builders and buyers took advantage of a mild winter on top of other favorable factors such as low rates and lean inventories.

Total housing starts should be around 1.6 million units for the year, matching the 2001 level, he said. Seiders forecast a new home sales level of 902,000 units for the year, existing home sales of 5.5 million and home price appreciation of between 3% and 4%.