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) -- Existing-home sales rose 3.7% in March to a slightly better-than-expected seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.1 million units, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday morning, pointing to a small step toward recovery in the U.S. housing market.

Economists' consensus call had been for the figure to come in at 5.00 million units, according to estimates listed on

, compared with a rate of 4.88 million units sold in February. March's rate remained 6.3% below year-earlier levels, and 24.8% below the cyclical peak of 6.49 million units in Nov. 2009, which was the first month following the initial deadline for the

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

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

The housing sector is well off its 2010 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


, 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 U.S. Home Construction


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

>> Housing Market to Recover in 2013: Analyst

Much of the sector was in positive territory Wednesday morning ahead of the existing-home sales report.

Among individual builders,



added 0.5%,

D.R. Horton


gained 1.1%,



0.3% and

Toll Brothers



Small-cap builder

KB Home


lost 0.1%.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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