PORTLAND — January sales of existing single-family homes increased 2 percent in Maine when compared to January 2011.


It was the seventh consecutive month of home-sale increases in Maine, according to a report released today by the Maine Real Estate Information System Inc.


But Maine didn’t do nearly as well compared to the rest of the Northeast. In total, Northeast sales of existing homes increased 7.1 percent when compared to January 2011.


The increases in Maine actually followed a nationwide trend of an improving housing market.


Single-family home sales rose 3.8 percent throughout the U.S. And the number of first-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, increased slightly to make up 33 percent of all sales.


Sales of previously occupied homes nationally are at their highest level since May 2010. And the supply of homes fell last month to its lowest point in nearly seven years, which could push home prices higher.

In total, U.S. sales have risen nearly 13 percent over the past six months. While they are still well below the 6 million that economists equate with a healthy market, the gains have coincided with other changes in the market that suggest more sales are coming.

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

Most economists said the U.S. 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.

But analysts caution that the damage from the housing bust is deep and 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.

Once concern is the market is still saturated with homes at risk of foreclosure, which lower broader home prices. The media sales price in Maine decreased by 1.88 percent, to $157,000, and decreased nationally 2.6 percent to $154,400.

Sales rose in January in every section of the country. They rose on a seasonal basis by nearly 9 percent in the West, 3.5 percent in the South and 1 percent in the Midwest.

The Associated Press contributed national reporting to this story.

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