Sales of existing single-family homes rose to unusually high levels last month, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Existing-home sales increased 6.1 percent in October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.77 million units from an upwardly revised level of 5.44 million units in September. Last month's sales activity was 9.5 percent above the 5.27-million unit pace in October 2001 and was tied for the third-highest pace on record.

The NAR attributed the gain to historical lows in mortgage interest rates in recent months, as well as the inventory of homes on the market, which was historically lean during the first half of the year.

Housing inventory levels at the end of October slipped 2.6 percent from September to a total of 2.23 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 4.6-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 5.1-month supply in both August and September. During the first half of 2002, inventories averaged a 4.6-month supply; a 6.0-month supply is considered to be a generally balanced market between buyers and sellers.

The national median existing-home price was $159,600 in October, up 9.8 percent from October 2001 when the median price was $145,400. This is the largest price gain since July 1987 when the median price rose 10.5 percent above a year earlier. The median is the midpoint, which is a typical market price where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 7.9 percent in October to a pace of 680,000 units, and were 4.6 percent above October 2001. The median existing-home price in the Northeast was $165,000, up 14.1 percent from a year ago.

Home resale activity in the West rose 7.1 percent from September to an annual rate of 1.50 million units in October, and was 11.1 percent above the same month a year earlier. The median existing-home price in the West was $214,000, up 8.5 percent from October 2001.

The existing-home sales pace in the South rose 5.5 percent in October to an annual rate of 2.31 million units, and were 10.0 percent above October 2001. The median price of an existing home in the South was $148,800, which was 9.7 percent higher than a year ago.

In the Midwest, homes were reselling at an annual rate of 1.27 million units in October, up 4.1 percent from September, and were 7.6 percent above a year ago. The median price in the Midwest was $138,500, up 10.8 percent from October 2001.