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A gauge of pending home sales rose 3.4% in March - the first gain in nine months - signaling that sales of existing homes may pick up, the National Association of Realtors reported Monday. The index of pending home sales hit 97.4 in March -- the highest reading since November -- compared with 94.2 in February. "After a dismal winter, more buyers got an opportunity to look at homes last month and are beginning to make contract offers," said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, in a statement. Despite March's gain, the gauge was down 7.9% from a year earlier. Low inventory, declining affordability and poor weather have hit the housing market in recent months. By region, March's gauge of pending home sales rose 5.7% in the West, 5.6% in the South and 1.4% in the Northeast. Meanwhile, the gauge declined 0.8% in the Midwest. Starting off with a weak first quarter, 2014's sales of existing homes will likely reach about 4.9 million, falling short of 5.1 million sales last year, according to NAR's forecast. Pending sales typically close within two months. An index reading of 100 equals 2001's average contract activity level.