Sales of existing single-family homes rose strongly in December -- while the year 2002 set a new annual record, according to the National Association of Realtors.

There were a total of 5,563,000 existing home sales in 2002, up 5 percent from the previous record of 5,296,000 in 2001. NAR began tracking the sales series in 1968.

Existing home sales increased 5.2 percent in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.86 million units from an upwardly revised level of 5.57 million units in November.

Last month's sales activity was 12.7 percent higher than the 5.2-million unit level in December 2001 and was the third-strongest monthly sales pace on record.

The NAR attributes the rise to exceptionally low mortgage interest rates, as well as strong demand. NAR President Cathy Whatley said the momentum of home sales is expected to remain strong.

Regionally, homes in the Midwest were reselling at an annual rate of 1.36 million units in December, up 12.4 percent from November; they also were 12.4 percent above December 2001. The median price in the Midwest was $137,300, up 4.6 percent from a year ago.

Existing-home sales in the South rose 4.6 percent in December to an annual rate of 2.29 million units, and were 11.7 percent higher than December 2001. The median price of an existing home in the South was $155,200, which was 6.7 percent higher than December 2001.

The home resale pace in the West rose 2.0 percent from November to an annual rate of 1.56 million units in December; the pace was 17.3 stronger than December 2001. The median existing-home price in the West was $215,200, up 11.3 percent from the same month a year earlier.

In the Northeast, existing-home sales rose 1.6 percent from November to a pace of 650,000 units in December, and were 6.6 percent higher than a year ago. The median existing-home price in the Northeast was $173,000, up 11.1 percent from December 2001.