Contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes rose in March for the first time in nine months, in the latest sign the housing market was stabilizing after a recent wobble.

The National Association of Realtors said on Monday its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed last month, increased 3.4 percent to 97.4. The increase beat economists' expectations for a 1.0 percent advance.

These contracts become sales after a month or two, and March's rise suggested home resales could rebound in the months ahead after stumbling last summer following a run-up in mortgage interest rates.

"After a dismal winter, more buyers got an opportunity to look at homes last month and are beginning to make contract offers," said Lawrence Yun, the NAR's chief economist.

"Sales activity is expected to steadily pick up as more inventory reaches the market, and from ongoing job creation in the economy."

Existing home sales in March fell to their lowest level in more than 1-1/2 years, but details of the report suggested the downward trend in sales had probably run its course, with housing inventory rising and more first-time buyers coming into the market.

Despite last month's surge, pending home sales were still down 7.9 percent compared to March of last year.

Contracts increased in the Northeast, in the South and in the West. They, however, fell in the Midwest.