US home sales fell sharply last month as shutdowns to contain the coronavirus pandemic were implemented, according to industry data released Tuesday.

Sales of existing homes dropped 8.5 percent compared to February to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 5.27 million, according to the National Association of Realtors, which said more declines are likely in coming months.

Home prices continued to rise, however, increasing to a median of $280,600, NAR said, which is eight percent higher than a year ago.

The data are based on completed home purchases that are weeks in the making, so it is possible some sales were simply delayed.

"More temporary interruptions to home sales should be expected in the next couple of months, though home prices will still likely rise," NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement.

Sales fell nationwide but the dropoff was most pronounced in the West where home sales plunged 13.6 percent, while in the South the decline was 9.1 percent, NAR said.

Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics warns that "April will be much worse" since it will reflect more widespread lockdowns in a key sector for the US economy, and rising unemployment will have a major impact.

"We remain hopeful that many transactions have been deferred rather than cancelled -- homes usually aren't impulse purchases -- but the pool of potential buyers has shrunk as jobs have evaporated," he said in an analysis of the data.

The supply of housing on the market -- which has been dwindling for months -- increased to 3.4 months from 3.0 months in February, which could be expected to help tamp down prices.

But Yun said the pandemic may cause fewer sellers to list their homes "which will limit buyer choices."

NAR noted an increase in virtual home tours and e-signings, as realtors adapt to the limitations imposed by efforts to contain the virus.AFP