First-time buyers, who are critical to a housing recovery, made up only 30 percent of sales in January, unchanged from December. That's well below the 40 percent typical in a healthy market.
And since the housing bubble burst more than six years ago, banks have imposed tighter credit standards and required larger down payments. Those policies have left many would-be buyers unable to qualify for super-low mortgage rates.
The average U.S. rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage is 3.56 percent. That's near the 3.31 percent reached in November, the lowest on records dating to 1971.
Rising demand for homes is encouraging builders to step up production. In January, builders started construction at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 890,000 homes. That was down from December but was still the third-highest pace since mid-2008 and nearly 24 percent above the level a year ago.
And applications for building permits, a sign of future construction, rose in January to their highest point since June 2008.
Sales rose in January in all parts of the country except the West, the region that's being hampered the most by the shortage of homes for sale. In the West, sales fell 5.7 percent. Sales rose 4.8 percent in the Northeast, 3.6 percent in the Midwest and 1 percent in the South.