WASHINGTON -- Sales of existing single-family homes rose last month and are close to the highest level of activity ever recorded, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Existing-home sales rose 7.0 percent in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.79 million units, from a level of 5.41 million units in March. Last month's sales activity was 9.5 percent above the 5.29-million unit pace in April 2001, and was the third-highest pace on record.

January and February of this year, with annual existing home sales rates of 6.05 million and 5.89 million units respectively, experienced the highest levels of sales activity since record keeping began in 1968.

"Low interest rates, strong demand, high consumer confidence and an improving economy are setting the stage for another record year in existing home sales," said David Lereah, NAR's chief economist. "It all comes down to the strong housing market fundamentals, which won't be changing anytime in the foreseeable future."

NAR projects 5.38 million existing home sales this year, up 1.5 percent from last year's record.

"Housing is playing a critical role in the economic recovery," noted NAR President Martin Edwards Jr. "Home prices are continuing to rise, but so are the number of homes on the market. It's been a sellers' market in most of the country, but the good news for buyers is that the inventory situation has improved over the last two months. That should help to create a better balance between buyers and sellers and reduce some of the pressure on home prices as the level of sales activity begins to settle from this peak activity."

The national median existing-home price was $153,300 in April, up 7.1 percent from April 2001 when the median price was $143,100. The median is the midpoint, which is a typical market price where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

Housing inventory levels at the end of April rose 11.0 percent from March to a total of 2.33 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.8-month supply at the current sales pace.