Sales of existing single-family homes rose to a new monthly record in January as home prices continued to show strong gains, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Existing-home sales increased 3 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.09 million units from an upwardly revised level of 5.91 million in December. Last month's sales activity was 2.2 percent above the previous record high of 5.96 million units in January 2002.

David Lereah, NAR's chief economist, said the momentum of sales is huge.

"We've just finished a record year for home sales, but mortgage interest rates dropped to a new low in January," he said. "Given the demands of a growing population, and with real estate becoming the safe haven for investment, many factors are in place for a continuation of strong home sales."

NAR President Cathy Whatley, owner of Buck & Buck Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., said even with the strong momentum the association expects a temporary drop in home sales.

"About a fifth of the country was essentially shut down for the better part of a week in February due to the huge snowstorm in the East, so we shouldn't be surprised to see a negative impact on home sales," she said. "However, the disruption will only postpone transactions and we should see strong housing activity throughout the year."

Regionally, existing-home sales in the South rose 7.3 percent from December to a record annual rate of 2.50 million units in January, and were 5.5 percent higher than a year ago. The median price of an existing home in the South was $148,500, which was 4.5 percent higher than January 2002. The home resale pace in the West rose 5.1 percent to a record annual rate of 1.66 million units in January; the pace was 3.1 percent stronger than January 2002.

The median existing-home price in the West was $219,600, up 10.4 percent from the same month a year earlier. In the Northeast, existing-home sales rose 4.5 percent from December to a pace of 690,000 units in January, but were 2.8 percent below a 710,000-unit level in January 2002. The record was a 720,000-unit annual rate in February 2002. The median existing-home price in the Northeast was $175,000, up 14.9 percent from a year ago. Homes in the Midwest were reselling at an annual rate of 1.24 million units in January, down 7.5 percent from a record-high 1.34 million-unit pace in December; they were 2.4 percent below January 2002. The median price in the Midwest was $133,300, up 3.6 percent from a year earlier.