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California home sales rise last month, prices fall
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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Bargain hunters lifted homes sales in California last month, snapping up foreclosed and other distressed properties as prices continued to fall, a research firm reported Wednesday.

There were 37,734 new and existing homes and condos sold in the state in December, up 4.2 percent from the same month of 2010, DataQuick said. The median price fell 3.1 percent to $246,000, marking the 15th straight month of year-over-year declines.

DataQuick said more than half of existing homes sold were either foreclosed on in the last year or short sales — transactions in which the price is less than what is owed on the property. Foreclosed properties accounted for 34.2 percent of existing home sales, and short sales represented 20 percent.

Sales in the San Francisco Bay Area showed less expensive homes are lifting the market. There were 7,494 new and existing homes and condos sold in December, up 4.4 percent from a year earlier. The median price in the nine-county region slid 6.3 percent to $351,500.

The number of Bay Area homes selling for less than $500,000 rose sharply from last year, while more expensive properties attracted fewer buyers.

"Many of the deals that did make their way through the system were in the distressed arena — foreclosures and short sales. Much of it was deeply discounted cash purchases, disproportionately at the lower end of the price scale," said John Walsh, president of San Diego-based DataQuick.

Absentee buyers, mostly investors, accounted for more than one of every five Bay area homes sold, DataQuick said. They paid a median price of $225,000, well below the overall market.

DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage said creditors' unwillingness to make loans and reluctance to sell at lower prices was keeping owners of more expensive homes on the sidelines.

"We think a lot people are just sitting tight (in high-end markets). They haven't lost their jobs, they're not in distress, but they just don't like the prices," he said.

Supplies are fairly tight. The California Association of Realtors said Tuesday that its index of unsold homes fell to 4.2 months in December from five months a year ago. The index indicates how long it would take for all existing homes on the market to sell at the current sales rate.

On Tuesday, DataQuick reported December sales for Southern California that also showed a robust market for lower-priced homes and weak demand for high-end properties. Overall, sales in the six-county region fell 1.4 percent from last year to 19,247 homes and condos, while the median price tumbled 6.9 percent to $270,000.

Sales in wealthier parts of the state suffered after caps were lowered on federally guaranteed home loans Oct. 1, though Congress later restored the higher limits for Federal Housing Administration loans. The lower loan limits remained in place loans guaranteed by mortgage giants Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the loan limit fell to $625,500 from $729,750. DataQuick said purchases made with loans rose last month in the two counties for homes in that price range but not nearly to the levels before the loan limits were reduced.