WASHINGTON — Existing home sales rose 4.2% to a seasonally adjusted 5.18 million-unit rate in May from an unrevised 4.97 million pace the previous month, the National Association of Realtors announced Thursday.

The May sales rate was stronger than the estimate of economists polled by Thomson Reuters, who predicted a 5 million rate.

The rate is a 12.9% increase from May 2012. The sales rate has now been above the previous year levels for 23 consecutive months, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said.

The regional sales data showed sales up across the board. Sales ticked up 1.6% in the Northeast and rose 4% in the South. Sales increased 2.5% in the West, and surged 8% in the South.

Yun said it was encouraging that the West region continued to be able to show gains, despite an acute inventory shortage. "Whatever inventory comes onto the market, buyers are ready to snap it up," Yun said.

The median sales price stood at $208,000 in May, an 8.5% gain from the previous month and a 15.4% jump from a year ago. Home prices have increased by double-digit levels for six consecutive months.

Housing inventory levels rose 3.3% from the previous month to 2.22 million existing homes, representing a 5.1-month supply at the current pace. Inventory was down 10.1% from the May 2012 level, when it was a 6.5-month supply.

"We are seeing some breakout in the home sales activity," Yun said, who cautioned that home values are rising far more quickly than incomes. "It is clearly not sustainable," he said, adding that home building needs to pick up and prices need to moderate. "Otherwise, we will have this persistent shortage situation," said Yun.

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