Published: May 24, 2011 4:09 PM EDT
Updated: May 24, 2011 4:09 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) - More people bought new homes for a second straight month in April, a hopeful sign. Still, sales remain far below the pace of a healthy housing market.

New-home sales rose 7.3 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 323,000, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. A normal housing market would produce a pace of about 700,000 new-home sales a month.

People have little incentive to buy new homes, in part because they're comparatively expensive. The median price of a new home rose more than 2 percent from March to $217,900. New-home prices are more than 30 percent higher the median price of re-sales - twice the normal markup.

"This was a better-than-expected report, but at the same time I am hesitant to read too much into it," said Michael Gapen, senior U.S. economist at Barclays Capital. "Total home sales remain well below their longer-term healthy levels."

Last year, Americans bought the fewest number of new homes on records going back 47 years. High unemployment, tight credit and a lingering fear that prices will fall further have discouraged many would-be buyers.

Still, Brad Hunter, chief economist with Metrostudy, noted that the number of foreclosures has slowed in some areas because of backlogged state courts. A result is that builders in desirable locales are "raising prices, indicating some recovery in those submarkets."

New-home purchases rose in every region last month, after severe winter weather had hammered many areas during winter. Sales jumped more than 15 percent in the West, 7.7 percent in the Northeast, nearly 5 percent in the Midwest and more than 4 percent in the South.

Purchases for the past three months were also revised to show slightly more homes had been sold.

The number of new homes on the market - about 174,000 - is at its lowest point since record-keeping began in 1963. At the current pace of sales, it would take 6.5 months to clear them off the market. That's the lowest supply in a year.

Still, analysts say the supply of new homes for sale is being kept artificially low. Home construction is far below a healthy level.

"Builders remain reluctant to increase inventories, as they face tough competition from foreclosures," said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

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