The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose less than expected last week, pointing to some underlying strength in the labour market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 320,000, the Labor Department said today. Claims for the week ended March 8 were unrevised.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 325,000 in the week ended March 15.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labour market conditions as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 3,500 to 327,000, the lowest level since November.

A Labor Department analyst said no states were estimated and there were no special factors influencing the state level data.

Claims fell 14,000 between the February and March survey periods, suggesting further improvement in job growth, which had slowed at the end of 2013 and the beginning of this year as an unusually cold and snowy winter disrupted economic activity.

There are signs, however, that hiring is picking up, with nonfarm payrolls accelerating somewhat in February.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said yesterday that harsh weather had played an important role in the economy's weakness in the first quarter, adding that labour market conditions continued to improve.

US existing-home sales dip in February

Sales of existing homes in the US dipped in February, driven by rising home prices and severe winter weather, the National Association of Realtors said today.

Sales of used homes fell 0.4% to an annual pace of 4.6 million in February, matching analyst expectations and down from a rate of 4.62 million in January. The February sales pace was the lowest since July 2012, NAR said.

Sales of single-family homes, the largest part of the market, edged down 0.2%. Sales of condominiums and co-ops dropped 1.8%.

The median price for all used housing types was $189,000, up slightly from January. The median price gained 9.1% from February 2013.

NAR said that conditions in February were roughly the same as in January, but that with an expected pickup in job creation, home sales should trend up modestly over the course of the year.

"We had ongoing unusual weather disruptions across much of the country last month, with the continuing frictions of constrained inventory, restrictive mortgage lending standards and housing affordability less favorable than a year ago," Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a statement.