Sales of previously owned homes rose 4.3% in January and inventories fell to nearly seven-year lows as lower prices, unusually warm weather and an improving economy lifted demand.
The National Assn. of Realtors said Wednesday that January sales were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million.
Sales rose in all four major regions, including an 8.8% pop in the West.
Job creation, mild weather, rising rents and increased household formation contributed to the sales gains, according to Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the Realtors group.
"Things are genuinely improving," Yun said.
December's sales were revised downward to a 4.38 million rate from a previously reported 4.61 million, leaving the final month of 2011 with a 0.5% decline.
The Realtors group called the latest revisions "minor" and said the figures didn't affect total 2011 sales of 4.26 million.
"It's still the case that existing home sales are recovering, albeit only gradually," said Paul Diggle, property economist at Capital Economics.
Sales are up 13% over the last six months and up 38% from their mid-2010 low, "so there's clearly an underlying recovery in place," he said.
The median sales price in January was $154,700, a 2% drop from a year earlier. Home prices are usually weaker in the winter because there are fewer transactions, and the National Assn. of Realtors doesn't seasonally adjust the price data.
Inventories fell 0.4% to 2.31 million, the lowest since 2005. That represents 6.1 months of supply, the lowest since April 2006 and down from 6.4 months in December.