Nationwide sales of new homes took a big dive in February, falling unexpectedly to their lowest point on record.

The drop was attributed in part to bad winter weather that kept buyers away. The results pointed to the housing industry's struggle to rebound from the worst slump in decades.

Sales fell 2.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 308,000, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The news follows a report Tuesday that sales of existing homes fell for a third straight month in February, to the lowest level since July.

Southland home sales have also shown sharp declines, particularly in the Inland Empire.

Figures released Tuesday show that sales of existing single-family homes in the San Bernardino/Riverside counties region fell 6.5 percent in February from the previous month.

On a year-over-year basis, sales were off by 24.1percent, according to the California Asso-

ciation of Realtors.

The only region to post a bigger annual decline was Sacramento, which weathered a sales drop of 26.7 percent, CAR figures show.

"Most of what we're seeing is resales," said Diane Pirozzi, president of Coldwell Banker

Western Properties in Ontario. "And most of those are short sales because there have been a lot of stays on foreclosures over the past year."

As a result, many foreclosed properties have yet to hit the market. Pirozzi wishes they would.

"It's limited how much inventory is out there for our clients," she said. "But when the repos finally do hit the market investors often pick them up before first-time homebuyers can get them."

Los Angeles County posted a 5 percent decline in sales of existing homes last month, but sales remained flat from a year earlier.

Chris Vigil, a broker associate with Keller Williams in Whittier, said 63 percent of homes listed in Whittier and surrounding areas are short sales.

"Our market is different than the Midwest where they are still seeing a lot of foreclosures," he said. "It costs the banks a lot of money to foreclose on properties - they'd rather do short sales."

And some banks are responding more quickly to short-sale offers.

Vigil said his office has a big push to work short sale properties with lenders that are "short-sale friendly."