WASHINGTON — Existing home sales increased at a 6.8% annual rate to 5.35 million in March, above economists’ estimates, as the homebuyers’ tax credit is set to expire, the National Association of Realtors reported yesterday.

March’s total for existing home sales was the largest since December and the first increase in four months.

Economists estimated 5.280 million existing home sales in March, according to the median estimate from Thomson Reuters.

Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, said the homebuyer tax credit has “generated enough momentum” to revive buyers’ confidence going into the second half of 2010.

Mortgages are likely to be more accessible to buyers, Yun said, as banks’ capital levels recover.

John Lonski, chief economist for Moody’s Capital Markets Group, said in a research note Monday: “The April expiration of homebuyer tax credits will likely pull forward housing activity in the near term, but set up a complementary decline in the months that follow.”

Yun said home prices “have stabilized” in the first quarter.

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