WASHINGTON — A surprisingly busy month for U.S. factories and a surge in home buying are the latest signs that the economic recovery is picking up.

Orders to U.S. factories rose 1.3 percent in March, the Commerce Department said today. That was much better than the 0.1 percent decline analysts had expected. Excluding the volatile transportation sector, orders gained 3.1 percent, the biggest increase since August 2005.

Widespread activity in many industries offset a big drop in commercial aircraft. The increase offers further evidence that U.S. manufacturers are helping drive the recovery.

A separate report showed that more people signed contracts on previously owned homes in March than was expected. The jump was in large part the result of tax incentives that have propelled the housing market this spring.

The National Association of Realtors said its seasonally adjusted index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes rose 5.3 percent from a month earlier to a reading of 102.9. It was the highest level since October and a 21 percent increase from the same month a year earlier. The index provides an early measurement of sales activity because there is usually a one- to two- month lag between a sales contract and a completed deal.

The two reports offered more evidence that the recovery is strengthening. They also follow a government report Monday that said consumers stepped up their spending in March by the largest amount in five months. As evidence of that trend, MasterCard Inc. on today said its first-quarter profit jumped 24 percent as more shoppers are feeling comfortable enough about the economy and their jobs to reach for the plastic again.

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