WASHINGTON — Purchases of new houses rose in March from a record low as the weakest industry in the economy strained to recover.

New-home sales, tabulated when contracts are signed, climbed 11.1 percent to a 300,000 annual pace, faster than forecast, figures from the Commerce Department showed Monday in Washington. The median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey called for a rise to 280,000. Housing prices fell from a year ago.

The market for new homes faces competition from a glut of foreclosed properties that may keep prices depressed this year, discouraging new construction. Unemployment above 8 percent and housing’s struggles help explain why the Federal Reserve may announce at the end of this week’s policy meeting that it plans to complete the purchase of $600 billion of Treasuries by June.

“It’s a nice rebound from February but the bottom line is housing is continuing to trend sideways,” said Omair Sharif, an economist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Conn., who correctly forecast March sales. “Builders have been doing their bit in paring inventory but the problem is they’re facing competition from distressed properties, high unemployment and prices that are still falling.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey of 68 economists ranged from 247,000 to 300,000. Sales in February were revised to a 270,000 annual rate from a 250,000 previously reported.

The median sales price decreased 4.9 percent from the same month last year, to $213,800, Monday’s report showed.

Purchases rose in most areas of the country last month, led by a 67 percent surge in the Northeast after a 54 percent slump a month earlier. Sales in the South were little changed at a 162,000 pace after February’s 163,000.

The supply of homes at the current sales rate fell to 7.3 month’s worth in March from 8.2 months. There were 183,000 new houses on the market at the end of March, the fewest since August 1967, indicating builders are reducing construction.

Previously-owned home purchases climbed 3.7 percent to a 5.1 million annual rate in March as a mounting supply of properties in or near foreclosure lured investors, a National Association of Realtors report showed April 20. All-cash deals accounted for 35 percent of the transactions, the most on record.

New-home sales are considered a more timely barometer than purchases of previously owned homes, which are calculated when a contract closes. Resales account for about 95 percent of the housing market so far this year.

Housing demand gyrated in 2010, after a boost from a homebuyer tax incentive of as much as $8,000 gave way to a plunge in sales by mid-2010 after the credit ended.

While sales have steadied, they have yet to strengthen, keeping builders pessimistic. The National Association of Home Builders’ confidence index fell to 16 this month from 17 in March.

A reading under 50 means a majority of builders view conditions as poor.