WASHINGTON--Sales of existing single-family homes set a new annual record in 2001 and monthly sales slipped in December, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

There were a total of 5.25 million exiting home sales in 2001, up 2.7% from 5.11 million in 2000. The previous record was 5.21 million sales in 1999. NAR began tracking the existing-home sales series in 1968.

Existing-home sales eased 0.8% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.19 million units from an upward-revised level of 5.23 million units in November.

Last month's sales activity was 5.1% above the 4.94-million unit pace in December 2000. David Lereah, NAR's chief economist, said low interest rates were a major factor throughout the year.

Housing inventory levels fell 12.9% at the end of December with 1.82 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.2-month supply at the current sales pace. There were 2.09 million homes available at the end of November, which was a 4.8-month supply.

Regionally, homes in the Midwest were reselling at an annual rate of 1.18 million units in December, up 0.9% from November. They were 14.6% above December 2000. The median price in the Midwest was $129,200, up 6.7% from a year ago.

The existing-home sales pace in the West rose 0.7% from November to an annual rate of 1.38 million units in December; the pace was 2.8% below December 2000. The median existing-home price in the West was $193,200, up 4.6% from the same month a year earlier.

In the Northeast, existing-home sales slipped 1.6% from November to a pace of 630,000 units in December; however, the annual rate was 3.3% above December 2000. The median existing-home price in the Northeast was $154,000, up 10.5% from a year ago.

Home resales in the South declined 2.4% in December to an annual rate of 2 million units; however, they were 6.4% above December 2000. The median price of an existing home in the South was $143,200, which was 8.9% higher than December 2000.