WASHINGTON - U.S. sales of existing homes fell in October to their lowest level in almost two years, an industry survey showed.

Resales unexpectedly fell 6.6% last month, to an annual rate of 4.79 million, the National Association of Realtors said. That was the first time the rate has been below 5 million since October 1998. The drop is the fourth in a row and takes the rate of homes sold to its slowest since it was 4.59 million in January 1998.

Sales of previously owned homes account for 85% of all U.S. homes on the market.

"I think it's fair to say the housing market has seen its peak for many a month," said Paul Kasriel, an economist with Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. Analysts had expected resales at a 5.13 million rate, the same as in September.

The decline in home sales follows increases in mortgage rates after they fell to lows last year. In October, 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 7.89%, up 17% from the 6.74% weekly average in October 1998. "This appears to be slowing what had been a red hot housing market," Kasriel said.

All regions of the country reported declines in sales, the Realtors reported.

It said the average price of a home fell 1%, to $133,100, in October, from $134,400 in September. Sales of existing homes are based on closings, which typically occur 30 to 60 days after a buyer signs a contract for a home.

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