Fewer Americans signed contracts to buy previously owned homes in November as credit markets seized up and a deteriorating labor market signaled the housing slump will extend into a fourth year.

The index of pending home resales fell 4%, to 82.3, the lowest level since the series began in 2001, from a revised 85.7 in October, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday.

"The housing stress just doesn't end," said Ethan Harris, co-head of U.S. economic research at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York.

Economists expected November pending sales to fall 1% after an originally reported drop of 0.7% in the prior month, according to the median forecast of 34 economists in a Bloomberg News survey.

Tuesday's home-sales report showed declines of 7.2% in the Northeast, 6.7% in the Midwest, and 2.4% in the West. Pending sales fell 2.2% in the South.

The Realtors group, whose pending sales data goes back to January 2001, started publishing the index in March 2005. The gauge was down 5.3% from November 2007.

Pending resales are considered a leading indicator because they track contract signings. Closings, which typically occur a month or two later, are tallied in the Realtors' monthly report on sales of existing homes. That report for December is scheduled to be released Jan. 26.

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