The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales rose 5.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million in November. That's up from 4.76 million in October.
Previously occupied home sales are on track for their best year in five years. November's sales were the highest since November 2009, when a federal tax credit that was soon to expire spurred sales. Excluding that month, last month's sales were the highest since July 2007.
Sales are up 14.5 percent from a year ago, though they remain below the roughly 5.5 million that are consistent with a healthy market.
"The report is encouraging, and the positive momentum established in the housing market during 2012 appears likely to continue into 2013," Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays Capital, said in an email.
Superstorm Sandy delayed some sales in the Northeast, the Realtors' group said. Those delayed purchases will likely close in the coming months, though the increase will be modest, the group said.
Even so, sales rose 6.9 percent in the Northeast last month compared with October. Sales increased 7.2 percent in the Midwest, 7.9 percent in the South and 0.8 percent in the West.
Job growth and low home-loan rates have helped drive purchases. Prices are also rising, which encourages more potential buyers to come off the sidelines and purchase homes. And more people may put their homes on the market if they feel confident they can sell at a good price.
In addition, the excess supply of homes that built up during the housing bubble has finally thinned out. The number of previously occupied homes available for sale fell to nearly an 11-year low in November. The supply of new homes is also near its lowest level since 1963.
At the current sales pace, it would take 4.8 months to exhaust the supply of homes for sale. That's the shortest such span since September 2005.
At the same time, more people are looking to buy or rent a home after living with relatives or friends during and immediately after the Great Recession.
As low supply and rising demand push up prices, builders will likely be encouraged to start work on more homes in coming months, economists said.
"That's a good reason to feel optimistic about housing next year," said Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight. "We just don't have enough homes right now, and we need to start building."
Builder confidence rose in December for a seventh straight month to the highest level in more than 6½ years, according to a survey released Tuesday by the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo.
The pace of home construction slipped in November, but it was still nearly 22 percent higher than a year earlier. Builders are on track this year to start work on the most homes in four years.
Economists note that the increase in building should lead to more construction jobs, though it hasn't yet done so. That could mean more construction hiring is coming.