Low mortgage rates stimulated sales of existing homes in July, producing a surprisingly large gain of 5%, to nearly 4 million, from the June total, the National Association of Realtors reported.

A survey of seven economists conducted last week by Dow Jones found that, on average, they had expected July sales of single-family homes to come in at 3.86 million units at a seasonally adjusted, annualized rate, up slightly from June's 3.78 million pace.

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