The winter slowdown in the housing market continued in February with a 0.6% decline in sales of single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums from the the previous month, the National Association of Realtors reported Tuesday. Though sales declined to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million, however, they remained 7% ahead of February, 2009.

It was the third consecutive month of decline in existing home sales but beat a consensus economist expectation for a drop of 2%.

Prices also were down. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $165,100 in February, 1.8% below February 2009.Distressed homes accounted for 35% of sales.

Single-family sales drove the overall decline by positing a 1.4% drop to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.37 million , still 4.3% ahead of February last year. The median existing single-family home price dropped 2.1% to $164,300 year-over-year.

Existing condo and co-op sales were up 4.8% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 650,000, and are 30.3% above February 2009. The median existing condo price was down only 0.2% to $170,200.

Total housing inventory at the end of the month increased 9.5% to 3.59 million existing homes available for sale, an 8.6-month supply, up from a 7.8-month supply in January.

The Realtor group said winter weather was partly to blame. "Some closings were simply postponed by winter storms, but buyers couldn't get out to look at homes in some areas and that should negatively impact near-term contract activity," said Lawrence Yun, the NAR's chief economist. Still, he added a cautionary note: "Although sales have been higher than year-ago levels for eight straight months and home prices are much more stable compared to the past few years, the housing recovery is fragile at the moment."

Sales of all types were mixed regionally. Declines in the West of 4.7% to an annual rate of 1.22 million and in the South of 1.1% to a rate of 1.85 million more than offset a 2.4% gain in the Northeast to 840,000 and an increase of 2.8% in the Midwest to 1.11 million. Median prices also were mixed, with the Northeast up 7.5% to $254,700, the Midwest down 2% to $128,000, the South down 4.2% to $139,600 and West down 9.8% to $207,900.Yun attributed the steep decline in the West to a lack of affordable housing inventory.

Compared to February, 2009, sales were up across the board this February.Sales were up 12% in the Northeast, 8.8% in the Midwest, 6.9% in the South and 3.4% in the West.

Yun said the next three months of data would be critical in evaluating whether housing is in recovery. "The key test for a durable recovery comes in the next few months as the tax credit deadline approaches," Yun said. "If we see a surge in home buying comparable to last fall in the months leading up to the original tax credit deadline, then enough inventory should be absorbed to ensure a broad home price stabilization."