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Americans, taking advantage of a reprieve from rising interest rates, drove sales of existing homes up by a surprising 9.3 percent in August, the biggest leap in 14 months.

Sales of existing homes rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.27 million units last month after falling sharply in July, the National Association of Realtors said today.

Many analysts had expected sales to increase by 4.4 percent. The 9.3 percent gain was the largest since a 10.9 percent jump in June 1999.

In the last two weeks of August, the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell below the 8 percent mark. For the month, 30-year rates averaged 8.03 percent, down from 8.15 percent in July. Still, August's rate was considerably higher than the 7.94 percent average rate in August 1999.

In August, the median existing-home sales price, meaning half sold for more and half for less, was $142,200, up 3.5 percent from the median price for the same month a year ago.

Sotheby's to pay $512 million

NEW YORK (AP) -- The board of Sotheby's has approved payment of its half of a $512 million settlement to resolve claims that it cheated buyers and sellers for years by fixing fees with rival auction house Christie's.

Sotheby's majority shareholder and former chairman A. Alfred Taubman will pay $156 million of the company's $256 million portion, Sotheby's said Sunday. In exchange, the company said, it settled all potential claims against him. The other half of the settlement is due from Christie's.

The $512 million deal was reached Thursday by lawyers for Sotheby's, Christie's and the 120,000 buyers and sellers who filed suit in March, accusing the auction houses of cooperating to fix fees as far back as 1992.

More benefits for gay partners

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More employers are offering health insurance coverage to the partners of homosexual employees -- a total that includes just over 100 of the Fortune 500 companies -- according to a report released today by a gay-rights group.

The study, by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, found that a total of 3,572 companies, colleges and states and local governments offered or had announced they would offer health insurance covering their employees' domestic partners. This was up 25 percent from a year ago, when 2,856 employers extended such benefits.


Gasoline prices remained steady over the past two weeks, with no immediate impact from President Clinton's decision to tap 30 million barrels of oil from emergency stockpiles, an analyst said Sunday.

The Lundberg Survey of 10,000 stations nationwide found that the average price of all grades, plus taxes, was $1.62 per gallon Friday. It was a tenth of a cent per gallon lower than prices the survey found two weeks ago, but 28 cents per gallon higher than for the same period a year ago.

The national weighted average price of gasoline, including taxes, at self-serve pumps Friday was $1.57 for regular, $1.67 for mid-grade and $1.76 for premium. For full-serve, prices were $1.88 for regular, $1.97 for mid-grade and $2.05 for premium.


Eckerd Corp. announced it has hired an ousted grocery company executive to lead the drugstore chain owned by J.C. Penney Co.

Wayne Harris was named chairman and chief executive officer of Eckerd effective Oct. 1. Harris had held the same titles with Grand Union Co. until February, when he was fired amid mounting losses.

Eckerd's profitability has been squeezed by the rise of managed-care health plans that have paid lower prices for prescription drugs. Eckerd is trying to revamp its advertising to feature higher-margin items such as cosmetics.


Conseco Inc. announced that its lender banks have agreed to restructure $2.8 billion of its debt.

Conseco said in a statement that the plan will reduce debt, which has grown to more than $5.9 billion, by more than $3 billion by the end of 2003.

The restructuring, a key component of Chairman Gary Wendt's plan to restore the insurer's profitability, will reduce the company's debt from 41 percent of total capital to less than 25 percent.

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