The percentage of Southern California homes that sold for more than $500,000 rose to 20.2% of all sales in December from 16.5% a year earlier, DataQuick said. That is well off the 52% level reached before the credit crunch hit in 2007, which made large mortgages difficult to obtain.
Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said buyers have sensed more security in Southern California's real estate market in recent months and have begun to get off the fence.
"We are getting a little bit of what we had six or seven years ago, where people are worried if they don't get in now they are going to miss out on an opportunity," Green said. "In a decent neighborhood, in the half-a-million-dollar range, we are back to lots of offers."
A total of 22,328 new and resale homes sold last month in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties, up 16.4% from November and 12.1% from December 2008, DataQuick said.
Still, uncertainty lingers. Unemployment and a potential wave of homes headed for sale because of foreclosure or delinquency loom over the U.S. housing market. Both could slow Southern California's progress toward recovery should the Obama administration fail in its efforts to aid struggling borrowers. California's budget woes could also bode poorly for the state.
"The fiscal picture is still really bleak, and that makes me worry," Green said.
The home-buyer tax credit motivated Jennifer Scholte, 31, to close on a Lakewood home in December. The teacher said she and husband Eric, 34, saved up for a 20% deposit on the $361,000 property.
"We are first-time home buyers, and with that credit, that was a big push," she said.
To take advantage of similarly minded buyers, Leibovitch of Rodeo Realty said he has hired 40 to 50 people in the last three months, including secretarial, marketing and administrative staff, to prepare for what he predicts will be one of the strongest sales years on record. Escrow of the West, a Beverly Hills company, said it would open a Sherman Oaks branch Thursday, creating 25 jobs.