Home sales surge in Wash., but prices languish

Sales of existing homes in Washington state surged in the first quarter of the year, but average prices did not, according to a new report.

The number of homes sold returned to levels that were close to average for the past 20 years, and were up 11.3 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the report by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

But the report found that median prices continued to fall, down 8.7 percent from the same period in 2011.

"The prevalence of distressed properties in some neighborhoods held prices back," said Glenn Crellin, associate director at the center.

The rise in number of homes sold reflected both a return to the market by first-time and move-up buyers and continued interest in distressed properties by investors, the report said.

The seasonally adjusted sales rate during the quarter was 97,000 homes, 7.9 percent above the last quarter of 2011, the report said. But the median sales price in the first quarter median fell to $208,300.

Crellin said the drop in the median price does not mean that prices of individual homes are uniformly continuing to decline. Rather, falling prices are primarily in neighborhoods with a significant number of homes at some stage of foreclosure.

Nine counties reported higher median prices, the report said.

Among Washington's urban counties, the greatest quarterly gain in sales was 33 percent in Chelan County, while the greatest decline, 7.1 percent, was in Whatcom County.

Among the urban markets, median home prices ranged from a high of $322,400 in King County to a low of $128,000 in Asotin County.

The combination of lower median prices and low interest rates means the affordability of homes has not been higher in the past 20 years. According to the center's Housing Affordability Index, the median-income family in the state had 84.7 percent more income than the minimum required to buy a median-price home, assuming a 20 percent down payment.

The data showed that in all 39 counties in the state, a median-income family could afford a median-priced home.