WASHINGTON -- Even though Americans bought fewer previously occupied homes in June, sales were at near record levels, suggesting that this main pillar of the economy remains sturdy.
The National Association of Realtors reported Wednesday that existing home-sales dipped by 0.6 percent in June to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.33 million, matching the fifth-highest level on record registered in December 1998.
''This is the housing boom that just won't go away,'' said economist Ken Mayland of ClearView Economics.
''Housing is providing a firm foundation for sustaining the surprisingly robust trend of consumer buying, and the tax rebate checks, some of which are now in taxpayers' hands, are the icing on the cake.''
On Wall Street, stocks rebounded. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 164.55 points at 10,405.67, recovering nearly half the 335 points it had lost earlier this week.
Economists said that consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of all economic activity, and the housing market, have held up well during the yearlong economic slowdown and have been forces preventing the economy from tipping into recession.
''No matter what is happening around them, households remain so confident that they are still buying homes at a near-record pace,'' said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
June's existing-home sales performance was better than many economists were predicting. They had forecast a 1.5 percent drop in sales because of the weak labor market, volatile stock market and the fact that mortgage rates rose slightly from May to June.
The average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage in June was 7.16 percent, up from 7.15 percent in May, but well below the 8.29 percent posted in June 2000.
''With mortgage interest rates projected to rise slightly to around 7.3 percent during the second half of the year, and some expected sluggishness in the general economy, month-to-month homes sales should trend down from these high marks,'' said David Lereah, the association's chief economist.
''However, we expect a total of 5.15 million existing-home sales in 2001, making this year the second highest on record,'' he added.
In May, sales jumped by 2.7 percent to a rate of 5.36 million, the third highest level on record. Even with the decline, June's rate of 5.33 million was close to that mark.
Used-home sales reached an all-time high of 5.45 million in June 1999, when the economy was booming.
In an effort to avert the first recession in the United States in 11 years, the Federal Reserve has slashed interest rates six times this year, totaling 2.75 percentage points.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress Tuesday that the economy remains weak and another interest rate cut may be needed if the situation doesn't improve.
Economists are predicting the Fed will cut rates by a quarter-point at its next meeting on Aug. 21.
In Wednesday's report, sales of previously owned homes were down in all regions of the country except in the West.
In the Midwest, sales last month fell by 4.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.14 million; in the South, they were down by 2.3 percent to a rate of 2.11 million; and in the Northeast, sales declined by 1.6 percent to a rate of 630,000. But in the West, sales rose 6.6 percent to a rate of 1.46 million.
The drop in overall sales in June didn't hurt home prices.
The median existing-home sales price, meaning half sold for more and half for less, rose to a record $152,600 in June, up 8.8 percent from the median price for the same month a year ago. Home prices have remained strong throughout the economic slowdown.
''The higher home price in June partially reflects the trade-up buyers' preference for larger homes,'' Lereah said.
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