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WASHINGTON – U.S. sales of previously occupied homes surged in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.39 million, approaching a healthy level for the first time since November 2009. The spike in home sales shows housing remains a driving force for the economy even as mortgage rates rise.

The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that sales jumped 6.5 percent last month from a 5.06 million pace in June. They were up 17.2 percent from July 2012.

Sales have now stayed above an annual pace of 5 million for three straight months. That hasn’t happened since 2007. And sales are well above the 3.45 million pace hit in July 2010, the low point after the housing bubble burst.

The Buffalo Niagara Association of Realtors has not released sales figures for July. In June, closed sales in the region were up 5.8 percent from the previous year.

Steady hiring and historically low mortgage rates have helped the housing market recover over the last year. Banks are also slowly easing tight credit standards, which have made it hard for many people to get mortgages.

Home sales jumped in July despite higher mortgage rates, which have risen a full percentage point since early May. Higher rates may have encouraged some potential homebuyers to close deals early. The rates could slow sales later this year, especially if they climb higher. Still, the average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.4 percent last week, which remains low by historical standards. Most economists expect that the recovery in home sales and construction will endure.

The number of available homes is rising slowly and should support more sales. The supply of unsold homes rose 5.6 percent in July to 2.28 million, which is still 5 percent below last year’s figure. A limited supply has pushed up prices nationwide.

There were other positive signals in the report. The proportion of distressed sales including foreclosures stayed at 15 percent, the lowest since the Realtors began tracking the figure in October 2008.

And investors made up just 16 percent of purchases, down from a recent peak of 22 percent in February. The smaller proportion of investors suggests the market is slowly returning to normal.

One troubling sign: First-time homebuyers aren’t returning to the market. They usually help drive rebounds in home sales. But they made up only 29 percent of sales in July, below the 40 percent level consistent with a healthy market.

Housing has been a bright spot in the economy this year. Rising home sales boost spending at furniture and home supply stores and lifts Realtors’ incomes. New home sales jumped in June to a five-year high.