U.S. home resales rose sharply in November, at their fastest pace in three years, a sign the recovery in the housing market is gaining steam.

The National Association of Realtors said on Thursday that existing home sales climbed 5.9 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million units.

That was the fastest since November 2009, when a federal tax credit for home buyers was due to expire. Sales were well above the median forecast of a 4.87 million-unit rate in a Reuters poll.

The U.S. housing market tanked on the eve of the 2007-09 recession and has yet to fully recover, but steady job creation has helped the housing sector this year, when it is expected to add to economic growth for the first time since 2005.

NAR economist Lawrence Yun said superstorm Sandy, which slammed in the U.S. East Coast in late October and disrupted the regional economy for weeks, had only a slight negative impact on home resales.

The NAR expects some purchases delayed by the storm to add a slight boost to resales over the next few months, Yun said.

Nationwide, the median price for a home resale was $180,600 in November, up 10.1 percent from a year earlier as fewer people sold their homes under distressed conditions compared to the same period in 2011. Distressed sales include foreclosures.

The nation's inventory of existing homes for sale fell 3.8 percent during the month to 2.03 million, the lowest level since December 2001.

At the current pace of sales, inventories would be exhausted in 4.8 months, the lowest rate since September 2005.

Distressed sales fell to 22 percent of total sales from 29 percent a year ago.

The share of distressed sales, which also include those where the sales price was below the amount owed on the home, was also down from 24 percent in October.