That pace was the strongest in two years and beat Wall Street forecasts. Sales had been expected to rise to an annual rate of 5.35 million, according to economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters.
"There's a mini-boom going on in the housing market," said Thomas Popik, who conducts a monthly survey of real estate agents for Campbell Communications, a research firm.
Nationwide sales are up nearly 24 percent from their bottom in January, but are still down 23 percent from four years ago.
Prices, however, continued to be dragged down by foreclosures and short sales, where the mortgage exceeds the sales price. The median price last month was $174,900, down almost 9 percent from $191,200 a year earlier, and slightly lower than August's median of $177,300.
The inventory of unsold homes on the market fell about 7 percent to 3.63 million. That's less than an eight-month supply at the current sales pace, and the lowest level since March 2007.
Sales rose around the country, especially in the West, where they grew 13 percent from a month earlier. Foreclosure sales are booming in cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.
First-time homebuyers and investors are snapping up those homes and taking advantage of low mortgage rates. These buyers can also take advantage of a tax credit of 10 percent of the sales price, up to $8,000, if the sale is completed by the end of November.
The tax credit is so important to some buyers that they are adding a clause to their contracts, allowing them to back out if the sale doesn't close by Nov. 30. However, economists note that bargain-priced foreclosures and low mortgage rates are making a big contribution to the sales boom.
"We think the housing market has touched bottom and it is now only a matter of time until home prices stabilize - something that we anticipate to occur in late 2010," wrote Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.
Prices could fall further because rising unemployment leads to more foreclosures. The jobless rate, currently at 9.8 percent is expected to rise as high as 10.5 percent next year, causing more people to fall behind on their mortgages.
"There's more supply that's going to come into the marketplace," said Stan Humphries, chief economist at real estate Web site Zillow.com. "That additional supply will outpace demand."
With concerns about the housing market still prominent, Congress is considering several proposals to extend the tax credit for first-time buyers. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., want to extend it through June 30, and expand it to include all home buyers, at an estimated cost of $16.7 billion.
Realtors and homebuilders are loudly in favor, arguing that the tax credit is crucial to get the housing market back on its feet.
"We are not there in terms of removing the consumer fear factor," said Lawrence Yun, the Realtors' chief economist.
However, some analysts say the tax credit may not be as critical to the housing market as real estate agents suggest. "The group has an incentive to talk up the effects of the credit as it is urging Congress to extend it, and it therefore may be exaggerating the credit's effects," wrote David Resler, chief economist with Nomura Securities.
One potential roadblock to an extension also emerged this week. There are concerns that some of the 1.5 million applications for the tax credit are fraudulent.
At a hearing on Thursday the Treasury Department's inspector general for taxes questioned the legitimacy of some 100,000 claims for the credit, potentially including some illegal immigrants and 580 people under 18. The youngest taxpayers to apply for the credit were 4 years old.
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