Sales of existing U.S. homes jumped more than forecast in July, to the highest level in almost two years, signaling that the housing crisis which has crippled the world's largest economy is easing.

Purchases climbed 7.2%, to a 5.24 million annual rate, the most since August 2007, the National Association of Realtors said on Friday. The gain was the biggest since records began being kept in 1999.

Existing-home sales were forecast to rise to a 5 million annual rate, according to the median of 64 economists' estimates in a Bloomberg News survey.

Sales reached a 4.49 million annual pace in January, their lowest recorded level.

Purchases of existing homes grew 5% compared to a year earlier. The median price dropped 15% during the period, to $178,400.

The number of previously owned, unsold homes on the market jumped 7.3%, to 4.09 million in July, a "notable" increase, according to Lawrence Yun, the Realtors group's chief economist. At the current sales pace, it would take 9.4 months to sell those houses, the same as in June. A seven months' supply is usually consistent with stabilization in prices, Yun said last month.

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