“First-quarter sales closings were the highest first-quarter sales in five years. The latest contract signing activity suggests the second quarter will be equally good,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist, in a statement.

Pending sales of existing homes rose to their highest level in nearly two years in March, according to the National Association of Realtors’ latest Pending Home Sales Index.

The index, which represents contracts signed but not yet closed, jumped a seasonally adjusted 4.1 percent from February to March, to 101.4. That’s the highest index level since April 2010, when the deadline for a federal homebuyer tax credit program loomed. The index was 111.3 then.

Pending sales were up 10.8 percent from the same time a year ago on a non-seasonally adjusted basis.

“The housing market has clearly turned the corner,” Yun said. “Rising sales are bringing down inventory and creating much more balanced conditions around the county, which means home prices will be rising in more areas as the year progresses.”

In its latest monthly economic outlook, also out today, NAR upped its forecast for existing-home sales in 2012 slightly from last month, to 4.68 million — a nearly 10 percent increase from 2011. The trade group expects existing-home sales to rise an additional 1.5 percent in 2013, to 4.75 million.

NAR projects new-home sales will rise 31.6 percent in 2012, to 400,000, and increase a further 32.5 percent in 2013 to 530,000.