Existing-home sales in February topped economists' forecasts but remained slightly down from the same period last year, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday.

Sales of single-family homes, townhomes, condos and co-ops were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.91 million units in February, down 0.3% from a year ago but up 5.2% from the upwardly revised January total of 6.57 million.

Economists expect a rate of 6.5 million unit sales, according to Reuters.

David Lereah, the NAR's chief economist, said mild weather appears to be responsible for some of the gain. "Weather conditions across much of the country were unseasonably mild in January and likely were a factor in higher levels of buyer activity, which boosted sales that closed in February," he said in a statement.

Homebuilders rose on the news, with Toll Brothers ( TOL) gaining 2.8% to $34.03, D.R. Horton ( DHI) rising 2.8% to $33.33, and Ryland ( RYL) advancing 2.6% to $69.83.

Lereah said the NAR is seeing signs of stabilization after higher mortgage interest rates put a damper on the market. "Home sales should level-out in the months ahead," he said in the statement.

According to Freddie Mac ( FRE), the national average rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was 6.25% in February, up from 6.15% in January; the rate was 5.63% in February 2005.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $209,000 in February, up 10.6% from a year ago, when the median was $189,000. The median is a typical market price where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

Total housing inventory levels rose 5.2% at the end of February to 3.03 million existing homes available for sale. This represents a 5.3-month supply at the current sales pace, which was the same level as in January.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast rose 19.2% from January to February, and were 2.6% higher than a year ago. Existing-home sales in the Midwest rose 11.1% from January to February and were up 1.9% year over year.

In the West, February existing-home sales increased 5.1% from January, but were 10.6% below last year. Sales in the South fell 2.5% from January to February, but were 3.1% higher than a year earlier.