The Blanford Homes LLC Power Ranch community stands in Gilbert, Ariz., on Jan. 12, 2012. The Phoenix housing market, down 55 percent from peak values with more than two-thirds of homeowners owing more than their properties are worth, is starting to recover as demand grows and inventory shrinks. (Laura Segall/Bloomberg)

Existing home sales rose for the third consecutive month in December, according to data released Friday by the National Association of Realtors, which touts the upswing as a sign of recovery in the national housing market.

Sales of existing homes rose to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.42 million during the final month of the year, marking a 5 percent increase over the downwardly revised 4.39 million homes sold in November and a 4 percent increase over the 4.25 million homes sold in October. The number of homes sold in December 2011 also marked a 3.6 percent increase over the 4.45 million homes sold during the same month one year ago.The December upswing closed out an altogether positive year for existing home sales, which rose 1.7 percent in 2011 to 4.26 million.

“The pattern of home sales in recent months demonstrates a market in recovery,” NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement. “Record low mortgage interest rates, job growth and bargain home prices are giving more consumers the confidence they need to enter the market.”

The data reflects total existing-home sales, which refers to completed transactions of single-family homes, townhomes, co-ops and condominiums. These were the first published numbers since the realtors association rebenchmarked its reporting methods one month ago, downwardly revising several years of estimates in the process.

Overall housing inventory also dropped 9.2 percent at the end of the year to 2.38 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 6.2-month supply of homes at the current sales pace. Availability has been declining since reaching a new high of 4.04 million homes on the market during the summer of 2007.

NAR President Moe Veissi said he believes more home buyers are poised to take advantage of those improving market conditions in the year ahead.

“We have a large pent-up demand, and household formation is likely to return to normal as the job market steadily improves,” he said. “More buyers coming into the market mean additional benefits for the overall economy. When people buy homes, they stimulate a lot of related goods and services.”

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