Sales of U.S. existing homes unexpectedly dropped in December, restrained by the lowest supply of properties in more than a decade.

Purchases fell 1 percent to a 4.94 million annual rate last month, figures from the National Association of Realtors showed today in Washington. The reading was still the second-highest since November 2009. The median forecast of 79 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for sales to increase to a 5.1 million rate.

Even with December’s slip, 4.65 million homes were purchased for all of 2012, the most since 2007 and a sign the housing market is making steps toward recovery. Historically low mortgage rates, an improving job market and an increasing number of households will probably spur demand for housing this year.

“The best news was that the situation was really improving and gaining speed at a time when the economy was pretty much struggling,” Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts, said before the report.

Stocks fell after the housing report and after regional factory data showed manufacturing slumped this month. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.2 percent to 1,483.39 at 10:04 a.m. in New York.

Another report from Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond today showed is manufacturing index fell to minus 12, the lowest level since July, from 5 in December. Readings less than zero signal contraction.

Survey Results

Sales estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 4.89 million to 5.25 million. The prior month’s pace was revised to 4.99 million from a previously reported 5.04 million.

Sales last year climbed 9.2 percent from 4.26 million in 2011.

The median price of an existing home rose 11.5 percent to $180,800 from $162,200 in December 2011.