After months of stagnant activity, the number of contracts to buy previously-owned U.S. homes rose in March, marking the first gain in the past nine months, a leading U.S. industry group reported Monday. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) said its index of pending home sales, which measures the number of contracts that have been signed but not yet closed for purchasing previously- owned homes, rose 3.4 percent to 97.4 last month from a upwardly revised 94.2 in February. Lawrence Yun, the NAR chief economist, said a gain was inevitable. "After a dismal winter, more buyers got an opportunity to look at homes last month and are beginning to make contract offers," he said. "Sales activity is expected to steadily pick up as more inventory reaches the market, and from ongoing job creation in the economy." Although home sales are expected to trend up over the course of the year and into 2015, this year began on a weak note, and total sales are unlikely to match the 2013 level, the association estimated. The NAR index is a forward-looking indicator of previously- owned home sales, since there is usually one or two months' lag between signing a contract and closing a deal.