NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Existing home sales fell 0.6% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate just above 5 million, the lowest level of existing home sales in eight months, and the latest mixed signal from the U.S. housing market. Existing home sales have now declined for three consecutive months, though the February drop was by a much narrower margin than January's decline of more than 7%. The shrinkage has come after a bullish fall season for housing, stimulated by the federal tax credit for first-time home buyers. Even though that tax credit has been extended, the winter is typically the slowest month for the home market, and the severity of this winter in many U.S. regions has been a further impediment to home sales. At the end of October, there was a rush of buying ahead of an expected expiration in the tax credit for first-time home buyers. Total housing inventory at the end of February rose 9.5% to 3.59 million existing homes available for sale. Housing market experts expect weak near-term home sales before a spring rebound. "The key test for a durable recovery comes in the next few months as the tax credit deadline approaches," said National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun in a statement. "If we see a surge in home buying comparable to last fall in the months leading up to the original tax credit deadline, then enough inventory should be absorbed to ensure a broad home price stabilization." The national median price for all housing types was $165,100 in February, 1.8% below the same month of 2009. Distressed homes, generally sold at discount, accounted for 35% of sales last month. -Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York. Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.