By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. home resales surged in September after two straight months of declines as first-time buyers stepped into the market, pointing to underlying momentum in the economy.
While other data on Thursday showed a bigger-than-expected increase in the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits last week, the trend continued to suggest that the labor market remains strong. Labor market strength is one of the key factors underpinning the housing market.
"Today's reports reaffirm that the jobs and housing markets are moving in the right direction. That's important because the jobs and housing markets are going to be critical to supporting growth in 2017," said Ryan Sweet, senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The National Association of Realtors said existing home sales rose 3.2 percent to an annual rate of 5.47 million units. That was well above economists' expectations for an increase to a 5.35 million-unit pace.
First-time buyers accounted for 34 percent of transactions last month, the largest share since July 2012. Still, the share remains well below the 40 percent to 45 percent that economists and realtors say is required for a robust housing market.
September's strong home sales report came on the heels of data on Wednesday showing a jump in single-family housing starts and overall building permits in September.
The upbeat housing data added to reports on manufacturing and auto sales in suggesting that economic growth picked up in the third quarter after a lackluster performance in the first half of the year. Third-quarter gross domestic product growth estimates are as high as a 2.6 percent annual rate.
But with the supply of houses available for sale remaining low, the rising demand for housing will probably push up prices and constrain future sales.
The PHLX housing index fell <.HGX>, in line with a broadly weaker U.S. stock market. Shares in the nation's largest homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc <DHI.N> dropped 1.6 percent and Lennar Corp <LEN.N> fell 1.33 percent.
The dollar rose to a seven-month high against a basket of currencies after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said the ECB did not discuss ending bond purchases at its latest meeting. Prices for U.S. Treasuries were higher.
The increase in existing home sales last month was broad-based, even as housing inventory remained tight. There were 2.04 million previously owned homes on the market, up 1.5 percent from August, but down 6.8 percent from a year ago.
With supply constrained, house prices continue to rise. That is boosting profits for homebuilders and encouraging them to ramp up construction. PulteGroup Inc <PHM.N>, the No.3 U.S. homebuilder, reported on Thursday a 19.2 percent jump in quarterly profit.
The median price of a previously owned home increased 5.6 percent from a year ago to $234,200 last month. At September's sales pace, it would take 4.5 months to clear the stock of houses on the market, well below the six-month supply that is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.
Separately, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000 for the week ended Oct. 15. That marked 85 straight weeks of claims below the 300,000 threshold normally associated with a strong jobs market, the longest such period since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller. Economists had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 250,000 in the latest week.
Part of the increase in claims last week could be related to the effects of Hurricane Matthew, which lashed the Southeast of the country, causing severe flooding. The storm could have left some people temporarily out of work.
"It is possible that Hurricane Matthew contributed to the latest increase in claims, but it does not look like this is the only factor causing the recent disappointment," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
Unadjusted claims for North Carolina increased 2,520 last week. Outside the storm-affected states, there were hefty gains in unadjusted claims for Michigan, Kentucky and California.
The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 2,250 to 251,750 last week.
The claims data covered the survey week for October's nonfarm payrolls. The four-week average of claims fell 6,500 between the September and October survey periods, suggesting another month of solid employment growth.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani, additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Meredith Mazzilli)