Sales of new U.S. homes fell to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 328,000 in March, the Commerce Department said Tuesday, but still beat expectations by analysts.

Transactions were down 7.1 percent from an upwardly revised February rate of 353,000. The government previously estimated sales of 313,000 units last month. Sales beat a Reuters forecast of 320,000 homes and were up 7.5 percent compared to the annual rate of 305,000 in March 2011.

The median sales price of new homes was down 1 percent to $234,500 and the average sales price was $291,000. Distressed properties, including foreclosures and short sales, have dragged down pricing throughout the country.

Inventory for new homes was down to a new low of 144,000, or 5.3 months of supply at the current sales rate. Low inventory can indicate increased buyer activity, but housing experts say it can hurt future sales because prospective buyers have fewer options to choose from. Sellers may also be waiting to put their homes on the market until conditions improve.

Separately, the Case-Shiller Home Price Index released Tuesday reported that home prices in 20 major cities fell 3.5 percent in February.