Contracts to purchase previously owned homes unexpectedly fell in April to a four-month low, undermining some of the recent optimism that the housing sector was touching bottom.
The National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in April, fell 5.5 percent to 95.5, its lowest level since December.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected signed contracts, which lead existing home sales by a month or two, to rise 0.1 percent after a previously reported 4.1 percent gain.
The housing market has been one of the U.S. economy's weakest links as it recovers from the 2007-09 recession, but many economists think the sector will actually add to economic growth in 2012 for the first time since 2005.
The report on pending contracts in April could temper some of that optimism.
Millions of Americans owe more on their homes than they are worth, making them more cautious about spending and holding back the economic recovery.
After a debt-fueled housing bubble, prices have fallen about a third since 2006 according to some measures and the housing market continues to be saddled with an oversupply of unsold properties.
There have been some signs that the deflation in prices could be bottoming out. On Tuesday, the S&P/Case Shiller composite index showed home prices rose for the second month in a row in March.
But Wednesday's report showed contracts fell 12 percent in the western United States and 6.8 percent in the South. Contracts edged lower in the Midwest and rose slightly in the Northeast.
The National Association of Realtors downplayed the declines.
"All of the major housing market indicators are expected to trend gradually up," said Lawrence Yun, chief NAR economist.
Signed contracts were up 14.4 percent in the 12 months to April.