Sales of new homes hit five-year high in January

Despite the cold weather, sales of new homes, surprisingly, bounced back in January to a more than five-year high. 

Sales popped up 9.6 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000, accelerating to the fastest pace since June 2008, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. 

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The figures provided a positive spin on what has been a rough winter for the economy with cold and snowy weather blanketing most of the country. 

January's figures follow drops in the previous two months —  3.8 percent in December and 1.8 percent in November — fueling concerns about a housing market slowdown just as the sector seemed on the verge of robust growth.

Still, despite some flagging economic indicators, economists are generally optimistic about the overall trajectory of the economy, which they expect to break out of the doldrums as the snow melts and temperatures rise. 

Home builders argue that while their industry faces hurdles such as labor shortages and a lack of lot availability, they expect pent-up consumer demand to provide a boost this year. 

Overall, sales in 2013 were up 16.3 percent to 428,000, the best showing in five years.

Home prices continued to tick up last month, too, rising 3.4 percent from the same time last year to $260,100, while mortgage rates generally held steady around 4 percent. 

January's sales figures were boosted by the Northeast's surge in sales, which were up 73.7 percent. 

Sales also were up 11 percent in the West and 10.4 percent in the South.

While all of the other regions have had their share of winter weather, the Midwest has taken the brunt and that was reflected in a 17.2 percent drop in sales.

A separate survey on Tuesday showed that home prices rose 13.4 percent last year, the most in eight years, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index.

A report last week from the National Association of Realtors showed a steep drop — 5.1 percent — in sales of existing homes in January.