Existing-home sales trended downward for a second consecutive month in March, falling 2.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.48 million, according to data released today by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). The drop came as a result of decreased investor activity, as sales for owner-occupied units remained relatively flat.

The Realtor’s association brushed off the decline as merely part of "the process of settling into a higher level of home sales," in a press statement regarding the numbers. "The recovery is happening though not at a breakout pace, but we have seen nine consecutive months of year-over-year sales increases," said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. "Existing-home sales are moving up and down in a fairly narrow range that is well above the level of activity during the first half of last year."

Indeed, March’s sales rate remained 5.2% above the March 2011 level. Also, inventory declined 1.3%, taking the total number of existing homes available down to 2.37 million, a 6.3-month supply.

However, the industry’s stockpile may be more daunting than it appears, said Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, in a statement discussing the numbers today, pointing to the percentage of for-sale homes standing vacant. That rate was 2.3% at the end of last year, down from 2.7% a year earlier. "The vacancy rate is consistent with a glut of close to half a million houses. At the current pace, eliminating the overhang should take less than two years but will probably take longer, because it is concentrated in a few high-unemployment states."

Overall, the pickup in single-family home sales seen in the second half of last year "is real," Newport wrote, "but the road to recovery will be a long one."

To see NAR's full press release discussing March's numbers, click here.

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.