Sales of existing single-family homes were down in January from near-record highs but the pace of transactions remains exceptionally strong on a historical basis, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The NAR reported that existing-home sales declined 5.2 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.04 million units from a downwardly revised level of 6.37 million in December, which was the third-highest pace on record. Last month's sales activity was 2.0 percent above the 5.92 million-unit pace of January 2003. The all-time record of 6.68 million sales was set in September 2003.

David Lereah, NAR's chief economist, said monthly changes at this volume of home sales are relative. "We have to keep in mind that the level of home-sales activity over the last six months has been the strongest on record," he said. "The January pace was the sixth-highest ever and is above the total forecast for this year. We can expect month-to-month ups and downs, but the long-term trend is for home sales to stay close to record territory this year.

"Given the high level of sales in January, it's hard to read much into a monthly decline. However, unusually bad weather in much of the country may have postponed some sales," Lereah said.

"Strong household formation and an improving economy create housing demand," added NAR President Walt McDonald. "The continuing low level of mortgage interest rates is icing on the cake for the housing market."

Housing inventory levels declined 4.3 percent at the end of January with 2.20 million existing homes available for sale. This represents a 4.4-month supply at the current sales pace.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the South rose 2.0 percent from December to an annual rate of 2.60 million units in January, and were 6.1 percent higher than a year ago. The median price of an existing home in the South was $155,500, which was percent 4.3 higher than January 2003.

The home resale pace in the West declined 5.7 percent to an annual rate of 1.64 million units in January. However, the pace was 4.5 percent stronger than January 2003. The median existing-home price in the West was $234,500, up 7.9 percent from the same month a year earlier.

In the Northeast, existing-home sales fell 12.5 percent from December to a pace of 630,000 units in January, and were 6.0 percent below the level in January 2003. The median existing-home price in the Northeast was $212,300, up 17.2 percent from a year ago.

Homes in the Midwest were reselling at an annual rate of 1.18 million units in January, down 13.2 percent from December, and were 3.3 percent below January 2003. The median price in the Midwest was $134,300, up 1.5 percent from a year earlier.