Existing-home sales started the year strong, according to data released today by the National Association of Realtors. Sales were up 4.3% in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million units, a 20-month high with gains seen in all four regions. The median sales price was $154,700 for the month, down 2.0% compared to January 2011.

"The market for existing homes is about as strong as it has been in five years, nationally and in all four regions," wrote Patrick Newport, U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, in a statement today. "True, we saw better numbers during some months in 2009 and 2010, but these were driven by the two homeowner’s tax credits, which shifted activity across time, without appreciably raising overall sales."

And while condos and co-ops seemed to be January’s star performers with an 8.3% gain to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 520,000 units, that sector’s performance has bounced around in recent months, declining for three months before moving up in December and January, Newport pointed out. While the single-family market’s monthly gain was more modest at 3.8% to a rate of 4.05 million units, January was the fourth consecutive month of improvement for that sector.

The uptick in sales has helped to taper down inventory, which dropped to 2.31 million homes, a 6.1-month supply, in January, the lowest level seen since March 2006 and 20.6% below year-ago levels. However, much of that absorption has come from investors, which accounted for 23% of existing-home purchases last month, compared to 21% in December.

Regionally, the West was the strongest performer last month with an 8.8% jump to an annual rate of 1.23 million units. The South was up 3.5% to an annual level of 1.76 million units; the Northeast gained 3.4% to an annual rate of 600,000 units; and the Midwest improved 1.0% to an annual level of 980,000 units. Prices were down across the board on a year-over-year basis.

Newport predicts that overall existing-home sales will gain 8% this year over 2011. "This pickup is real," he wrote. "But the road to recovery will be a slow one."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.