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Sales of previously occupied homes in Salt Lake County rose in January to the highest pace in five years, a new report shows, mirroring rates nationally and offering a hopeful sign ahead of the spring buying season.

In Salt Lake County, 748 single-family homes and condominiums exchanged hands in January, up from 570 in January 2011, the Salt Lake Board of Realtors reported. Last month's home-sales total was the highest since January 2007, when pre-housing bubble sales rose to 1,147, the board said.

Although sales are up, prices aren't. Median home prices in Salt Lake County in January fell to $171,000 from a near-peak of $220,000 in the same month in 2007.

Nationally, home sales last month climbed to the highest level since May 2010, the National Association of Realtors said, noting that home sales have risen nearly 13 percent over the past six months.

Although sales nationally are still well below the 6 million that economists equate with a healthy market, the gains have coincided with other changes in the housing sector that suggest slow but steady improvement.

"The trend is clearly upward," said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Sales rose across the country in January, up by nearly 9 percent in the West, 3.5 percent in the South, 3.4 percent in the Northeast and 1 percent in the Midwest.

The only major issue that isn't moving in the right direction is prices. As in Utah, prices nationally are still falling, although on a positive note the pace of the decline seems to be slowing. The U.S. median sales price in January dropped to $154,700, down 2 percent from the same month last year.

Even though the home-sale market nationally is still loaded down with foreclosures, the supply of homes on the market has declined to 2.3 million, the lowest level in almost six years. At last month's sales pace, it would take more than six months to clear those homes, consistent with a healthy housing market. Fewer homes on the market could help boost prices over time.

Most economists said the January report was encouraging, especially when viewed with other recent positive housing data.

Mortgage rates have never been lower. Homebuilders are slightly more hopeful because more people are saying they might be open to buying this year — and they responded in January to that interest by requesting more permits to construct single-family homes.

"The rise in existing home sales in recent months adds to the indication from housing starts, building permits, and homebuilder sentiment that the sector has improved modestly since the middle of 2011," said John Ryding, an economist at RDQ economics.

Much of the optimism has come because hiring has picked up. More jobs are critical to a housing rebound. In January, employers added 243,000 net jobs — the most in nine months — and the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in nearly three years.

Analysts caution that the damage from the housing bust is deep and that the industry is years away from fully recovering. Since the bubble burst, sales have slumped under the weight of foreclosures, tighter credit and falling prices.

Many deals continue to collapse before they close. One-third of Realtors say they've had at least one contract scuttled over the past four months. That's up from 18 percent in September.

Among the reasons are that banks have declined mortgage applications. Appraisals have come in lower than the bid. Or a buyer suffered a financial setback before the closing.

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