) -- Home prices across the U.S. fell 3.1% in January, after falling 2.43% in December, not quite as steep a decline as expected but still an indication that there has been no improvement in home prices.

The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index of national home prices fell in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, ticking down 3.1% after falling 2.43% in December. The 10-city composite showed a 2% decline in January.

>> 10 Top Buy-Rated Real Estate Stocks for 2011

Economists had been expecting the index to fall 3.3%, according to consensus estimates listed on


The S&P/Case-Shiller 20-city index is a moving three-month average, so data for November was swayed by data from October and September.

On Monday the National Association of Realtors reported that

pending home sales jumped 2.1% in February

The pending home sales index, measures the number of contracts signed -- but not closed -- to buy previously owned homes in the U.S., rose month-over-month to a reading of 90.8, reversing a

2.8% decline in pending home sales in January. The figure remained 8.2% below year-earlier levels.

Pending home sales are viewed as an indicator of future home sales since they reflect contracts -- not closings -- and generally occur with a lag time of one to two months.

"Month-to-month movements can be instructive, but in this uneven recovery it's important to look at the longer term performance," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun.

"Pending home sales have trended up very nicely since bottoming out last June, even with periodic monthly declines. Contract activity is now 20% above the low point immediately following expiration of the home buyer tax credit."

Yun added that

poor weather across much of the U.S. in February pressured home sales .

>> Weather a Factor in Dismal Housing Data

"We may not see notable gains in existing-home sales in the near term, but they're expected to rise 5 to 10% this year with the economic recovery, job creation and excellent affordability conditions providing confidence to buyers who've been on the sidelines," Yun said.

Data released last week showed that

existing-home sales dropped 9.6% in February to a far worse-than-expected seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.88 million units, according to the NAR.

>> February Existing-Home Sales Drop 9.6%

February's rate of home resales remained 24.8% below the cyclical peak of 6.49 million units in November 2009, which was the initial deadline for the

first-time homebuyer tax credit, and 2.8% below the home resale rate in February 2010.

"Housing affordability conditions have been at record levels and the economy has been improving, but home sales are being constrained by the twin problems of unnecessarily tight credit, and a measurable level of contract cancellations from some appraisals not supporting prices negotiated between buyers and sellers," Yun said, commenting on the existing-home sales data.

Also last week, the Commerce Department a reported that

sales of newly built homes plunged 16.9% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 250,000, a far bigger jump than expected and the worst rate on record since 1962 .

>> February New-Home Sales Plunge 16.9%

February's new-home sales figure remained 28% below year-earlier levels. Every U.S. region, save for the West, saw record lows last month. The Northeast saw sales drop 57% month-over-month.

The homebuilder sector is well off its late-spring peak, when

buyers were rushing to take advantage of federal tax credits for homebuyers, and is only slightly higher than at the beginning of 2010. Whereas other sectors have begun a rebound in earnest, the housing sector continues to lag.


SPDR S&P Homebuilders

(XHB) - Get Report

, an exchange-traded fund that tracks the homebuilder sector, remains around 60% off its peak of $46.08 in early 2006. The

iShares Dow Jones US Home Construction

(ITB) - Get Report

ETF remains more than 70% off its peak of $50.10 in the spring of 2006.

>> Housing Market to Recover in 2013: Analyst1

Even so, better-than-expected pending home sales data pushed most homebuilder stocks higher on Monday.

In premarket trading Tuesday, shares of


(PHM) - Get Report

D.R. Horton

(DHI) - Get Report


Beazer Homes

(BZH) - Get Report



(LEN) - Get Report


KB Home

(KBH) - Get Report

were all flat ahead of the opening bell.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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