Existing home sales rose 6.5 percent in December to an annual rate of 4.74 million units, as the median home sales price plunged 15.3 percent to $175,400 from $207,000 a year ago. The decline is the largest year-over-year drop in records going back to 1968.
Separately, the New York-based Conference Board's monthly forecast of economic activity increased 0.3 percent in December. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a 0.3 percent decline.
The group's index of leading economic indicators had fallen 0.4 percent in November and a revised 1.0 percent in October.
If the jump in the money supply had been excluded, the index would have dropped a hefty 0.6 percent in December, said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y.
The index is designed to forecast economic activity in the next three to six months based on 10 economic components, including stock prices, building permits, average weekly manufacturing hours and initial claims for unemployment benefits.
With most components falling steeply, the Conference Board said unemployment could rise to 9 percent from 7.2 percent as the country remains in an intense recession through spring.
Job cut announcements piled up Monday. Home Depot Inc. said it plans to eliminate 7,000 jobs while closing four dozen of its smaller home improvement stores. Sprint Nextel Corp. said it is eliminating about 8,000 positions as it seeks to cut annual costs by $1.2 billion.
The Conference Board's leading economic index is about 5.0 percent lower than its most recent peak in July 2007. Over the last six months, a separate Conference Board index has seen its largest decline since 1980.
In home sales, buyers took advantage of dramatically lower prices, especially in distressed markets like California, Florida and Nevada, where foreclosures have swamped the market. Prices in the West dropped 31.5 percent from a year ago, according to a home sales report Monday from the National Association of Realtors.
"Buyers will continue to have an edge over sellers for the foreseeable future," said Lawrence Yun, the organization's economist.
For all of 2008, there were 4.9 million existing home sales, down more than 13 percent from a year earlier, and the lowest total since 1997.
AP Real Estate Writer Alan Zibel in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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