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For home sales, 2001 called banner year

Despite the sluggish economy, Americans bought homes in record numbers last year.

Sales of previously owned homes rose to 5.25 million for all of 2001, a 2.7 percent increase from the 5.11 million homes sold in 2000, the National Association of Realtors reported last week. Though sales for December dipped slightly from the previous month, the sales for the year were an all-time high, surpassing the previous record of 5.21 million recorded during the booming economy of 1999.

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The housing market was one of the few bright spots in the economy last year, kept strong primarily by low interest rates. The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage in 2001 was 6.97 percent, the association said, citing figures compiled by Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant. That was the lowest annual rate since 1998.

Should the economy rebound this year, as many economists predict, mortgage rates would also likely rise. Still, David Lereah, the association's chief economist, predicted 30-year rates would average 7.30 percent in the second half of the year - "still pretty good in historic terms."

For all of 2001, the median existing-home sales price - meaning half sold for more, half for less - was $147,500, up 6.1 percent from 2000.