Compared with 12 months earlier, sales dropped 4.8 percent - the steepest year-over-year decline since August 2014.
After decline in December, the sales were 4.8 percent lower than a year ago and at the slowest pace since last September's 5.37 million units.
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"The utter lack of sufficient housing supply and its influence on higher home prices muted overall sales activity in much of the USA last month", he said.
"It's very clear that too many markets right now are becoming less affordable and desperately need more new listings to calm the speedy price growth", Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the national Realtors, said in a news release.
All four of the major regions had lower sales in January, with existing-home sales falling 1.3 percent to 2.26 million in the South, with a median price of $208,200; 1.4 percent to 730,000 in the Northeast, with a median price of $269,100; 5 percent to 1.14 million in the West, with a median price of $362,600; and 6 percent to 1.25 million in the Midwest, with a median price of $188,000.
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The median seasonally adjusted price of existing homes sold in January surged to a new all-time record, increasing by 1.8 percent to $255,500, up 5.7 percent over the year. Unsold inventory is at a 3.4-month supply at the current sales pace, as against 3.6 months a year ago. January marked the 71st straight month of year-over-year gains. Many investors bought homes at low prices during the housing bust and are now renting them out rather than selling. Sales decreased 3.2 percent to 5.38 million, a 4.8 percent decrease from one year prior. January was the second consecutive monthly decline.
"However, there's hope that the tide is finally turning", he added.
"The gradual uptick in wages over the last few months is a promising development for the housing market, but there's risk these income gains could be offset by the recent jump in mortgage rates", Yun said. A separate report on January sales of new homes is due out Monday.
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All-cash sales were 22 percent of transactions in January, which is up from 20 percent in December. Economists and realtors say a 40 percent share of first-time buyers is needed for a robust housing market. Over the past year, the West has seen the strongest price gains, and the median price of homes sold in the West is now $380,800 - nearly $100,000 more than the median price of existing homes sold in the next-priciest region, the Northeast ($281,300) and nearly double the median price of existing homes sold in the Midwest ($207,000).