Pending home sales, reflecting signed contracts on existing homes, rose 5.1% in March, the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday.

The NAR's Pending Home Sales Indes rose to 94.1 in March from a downwardly revised 89.5 in February, 11.4% below 106.2 in March 2010, which was boosted by anticipation of the expiration of the federal home-buyer tax credit on April 30, 2010.

"Since reaching a cyclical bottom last June, pending home sales have posted an overall gain of 24 percent and demonstrate the market is recovering on its own," said Lawrence Yun, the Realtor's chief economist. "The index means modest near-term gains in existing-home sales are likely," he said, adding "which would be even stronger if tight mortgage lending criteria returned to normal, safe standards."

The PHSI in the Northeast, where the weather has been damp, cold and generally miserable, fell 3.2% to 63.4 in March, 18.4% below March 2010. The Midwest gained 3.0% to 83.5 but is 16.6% below a year earlier. The South jumped 10.3% to an index of 110.2, still 10.5% below March 2010. The West was up 3.1% to 103.7 but is 4.1 percent below a year ago.

Stephen East, housing analyst at Ticonderoga Securities, put a mostly postive spin on the numbers. "This was well above the consensus looking for a 1.5% increase," he wrote in a note to investors. "We note February results were downwardly revised to 89.5 from 90.8. We believe the poor weather impact in February was the largest driver of the better performance in March. Also, given recent builder commentary on month-over-month order trends improvements, this data supports their comments."