ALAN ZIBEL

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - New U.S. home sales surged 9.6 percent in July, rising for the fourth straight month and beating expectations as the housing market marches steadily back from its historic downturn.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that sales rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 433,000 from an upwardly revised June rate of 395,000. Sales are now up 32 percent from the bottom in January, but off 69 percent from the frenzied peak four years ago.

Last month's sales pace was the strongest since September and exceeded the forecasts of economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters, who expected a pace of 390,000 units. The last time sales rose so dramatically was in February 2005.

The median sales price of $210,100, however, was still down 11.5 percent from $237,300 a year earlier.

There were 271,000 new homes for sale at the end of July, down more than 3 percent from May. At the current sales pace, that represents 7.5 months of supply - the lowest since April 2007. The decline means builders have scaled back construction to the point where supply and demand are coming into balance.

Buyers, meanwhile, are rushing to take advantage of a federal tax credit that covers 10 percent of the home price, or up to $8,000 for first-time owners. Home sales must be completed by the end of November for buyers to qualify.

Builders and real estate agents are pressing Congress for that credit to be extended. If it isn't, sales could reverse their upward trend.