WASHINGTON -- After hitting a record high in January, sales of existing homes in February went down 2.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.88 million, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported.

Even with the drop, sales in February were the second highest ever recorded in one month since the association began keeping records in 1968.

''Obviously, low mortgage rates are the key to a strong housing market, but rising consumer confidence and a growing number of households bode well for the future,'' said NAR President Martin Edwards Jr.

''As the economy gains momentum, along with an expected rise in mortgage interest rates, home sales may come down to more sustainable levels, but we expect this year's total sales to be very close to last year's record,'' said David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist.

In January, existing-home sales rose to a record 6.05 million units, according to revised figures. That's slightly better than previously reported.

By region, sales went up 1.4% in the Northeast to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 720,000 units in February, a new monthly record. In the Midwest, sales dropped 0.8% to a rate of 1.30 million. Sales fell by 3.7% in the West to a rate of 1.58 million and in the South they declined 4.2% to a rate of 2.29 million.