U.S. pending home sales increased 4.1 percent in March compared to the prior month, signaling improvement in the national housing market and beating forecasts, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday.

Pending home sales, which are measured based on contract signings, beat an expected increase of 1 percent from economists polled by Reuters. The index was up 12.8 percent compared to March 2011 and reached the highest level since April 2010.

“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. “The housing market has clearly turned the corner.

In the northeast, pending home sales fell 0.8 percent in March but were up 21.1 percent compared to the prior year. In the midwest, pending sales were down 0.9 percent month-to-month and up 16.9 percent from the previous year.

In the south last month, pending sales rose 5.9 percent and were up 10.6 percent from the previous year. The index was up in the west last month by 8.7 percent and 9 percent compared to the same month in the previous year.