(New-Home Sales Winners & Losers article updated with stock price movements.)

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- Homebuilder stocks pushed higher Wednesday afternoon despite the latest round of far-from-stellar data on the housing market.

Sales of newly-built homes fell 12.4% in July to a seasonally adjusted record-low annual sales pace of 276,000, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The figure came in well below expectations for a rate of 334,000 after a downwardly revised rate of 315,000 units sold in June.

The report came a day after the National Association of Realtors said existing-home sales plummeted 27.2% in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.83 million units. The figure was far worse than the expected rate of 4.72 million units after a downwardly revised rate of 5.26 million in June.

"The data from the housing sector is pretty awful," ConvergEx Group chief market strategist Nicholas Colas told TheStreet. "I guess the best thing you can say is that the market figured that out yesterday so it was braced for today's number."

The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ( XHB), an exchange-traded fund that tracks the homebuilder sector, closed up by 3.2% while the iShares Dow Jones US Home Construction ( ITB) gained 3.1%.

Leading the sector higher were shares of Brookfield Homes ( BHS) and Toll Brothers ( TOL), which jumped 7.8% and 5.8%, respectively. Toll Brothers said early Wednesday it returned to profitability for the first time since 2007.

Shares of Beazer Homes ( BZH) closed up 4.9%, Meritage Homes ( MTH) 4.7%, D.R. Horton ( DHI) and KB Home ( KBH) 4.6%, and Standard Pacific ( SPF) 4.4%.

Record-low and near-record-low mortgage rates have failed to spark demand for housing in recent months, but clearly had an effect on homeowners looking to lower their monthly payments through refinancing.

Mortgage applications rose 4.9% in the week ended Aug 20, the Mortgage Bankers Association said early Wednesday. It was the fourth straight week-over-week increase, led by a 5.7% jump in refinance applications, while loan applications for home purchases edged up by 0.6%.

The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 4.55% last week, the MBA said. It was the lowest rate ever recorded in the survey, falling from 4.6% in the prior week. The average contract interest rate for 15-year fixed-rate mortgages decreased to 3.91%, from 3.99% in the prior week.

Refi applications accounted for 82.4% of all applications last week, up from 81.4% in the prior week, and the highest share observed since January 2009.

The U.S. housing market continues to struggle and has been under tremendous pressure for some time. Demand fell further after the springtime expiration of federal tax credits for homebuyers. Most analysts agree the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

>>4 Top Homebuilder Stocks: Life After the Tax Credit

The housing market saw sales ramp up in March and April as consumers rushed to take advantage of tax credits that offered as much as $8,000 for first-time homebuyers and $6,500 for repeat buyers. Following the expiration of those credits on April 30, the market saw a dramatic decline in demand for the month of May that spilled over into June. Data for July showed a further drop in demand. Lawmakers later extended the deadline to close on a home purchase and still qualify for the tax credit to Sept. 30.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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