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Washington • U.S. sales of previously occupied homes retreated in September from a two-year high, a reminder that America's housing sector is a long way from a full recovery despite recent signs of improvement.

Housing has been a relative bright spot in the U.S. economy this year, and Friday's data did not point to a reversal in that trend. The reading for August was revised slightly higher to show resales at a 4.83 million-unit annual rate.

"While these numbers bounce around, there is no doubt that this is showing the housing market is improving," said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

But sales fell 1.7 percent, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.75 million units, in September in part because there were fewer homes available, according to the National Association of Realtors. That's down from a rate of 4.83 million in August.

Although up 11 percent from a year earlier, they remain below the more than 5.5 million that economists consider consistent with a healthy market.

Still, the housing market is recovering after a six-year slump. Economists expect sales will rebound in October, noting that mortgage applications have picked up after falling in August.

Activity has improved, helped by record-low mortgage rates and steady gains in home prices in most metro areas. Prices are more stable because there are fewer foreclosures, and a low supply of homes has made some markets more competitive.

The inventory of homes for sale fell in September to 2.32 million. It would take 5.9 months to exhaust the supply at the current sales pace, the lowest sales-to-inventory ratio since March 2006.

Economists noted that rising prices could spur more homeowners to put their homes on the market, which could fuel more sales.

Sales rose slightly in the South last month, compared to August. They fell in all other regions. In the past year, sales have risen at a healthy pace in the Northeast, South and Midwest. They have risen only slightly in the West, where inventories are particularly tight.

The market is still being constrained by tougher lending standards. Many would-be buyers, particularly first-timers, are having difficulty qualifying for a mortgage or can't afford the larger down payments that many lenders want.

A low supply of previously occupied homes has also given a boost to the new-home market.

Builders broke ground on homes and apartments at the fastest pace in more than four years last month. The jump could help boost the economy and hiring. Still, the pace of construction is roughly half of what is associated with a healthy market, and new-home sales are coming off depressed levels.

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