WASHINGTON -- The National Association of Realtors reported today that sales of existing homes edged down 0.3 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.75 million.

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

"Housing is continuing to be a significant factor in sustaining the U.S. economy," said the association's chief economist David Lereah.

"Going forward, the trend should be a gradual decline in home sales activity but they'll stay above last year's record," he added.

For all of 2001, a record 5.3 million existing homes were sold. The association expects sales figures this year to top that.

By region, sales in May declined 3.9 percent in the South to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 2.20 million.

In the Northeast, sales dropped 2.9 percent to a pace of 680,000.

But in the West, sales rose 4.5 percent to a rate of 1.62 million, and in the Midwest, they increased to a rate of 1.25 million, a 1.6 percent advance.