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California home sales rise in December; median price falls again

A 4.2% gain in the state's home sales last month from a year earlier is boosted by a pickup in the Bay Area and investor activity in Southern California. The median price falls 3.1% to $246,000.

January 19, 2012|By Alejandro Lazo, Los Angeles Times

Home sales in California rose in December, boosted by a pickup in the Bay Area and investor activity in Southern California. But with foreclosures and other low-cost homes dominating the market, the median home price for the state ticked lower.

Sales rose 4.2% from the same month a year earlier. A total of 37,734 homes were bought throughout the state in December, with more than half purchased in Southern California, according to DataQuick, a residential real estate information firm in San Diego.

The median price for the state fell 3.1% to $246,000 compared with the same month a year earlier. That made for the 15th consecutive decline in the median price, the point at which half the homes sold for more and half for less.

The December data cap a year in which home prices and sales stagnated with a troubled economy and a high unemployment rate. Although there are some signs that housing may be improving — new-home starts are increasing nationally, for instance, and builder confidence ticked up for the fourth consecutive month in January — many hurdles remain.

A weak job market and a shortage of buyers able to meet today's tough credit standards set by lenders are chief among those challenges.

"The spectacular gains in affordability, based on the combination of lower prices and ultra-low interest rates, was largely theoretical for many people because it was so hard to get a mortgage," DataQuick President John Walsh said. "That, combined with negative equity and economic uncertainty, kept people away."

Sales activity in the Bay Area showed some improvement in December, but like Southern California's housing market, prices continued to trend lower.

Sales in the Bay Area included few move-up buyers and lots of investors scraping the bottom, according to DataQuick. Total sales were up 4.4% from the same month a year earlier. The region's median sale price fell 6.3% to $351,500.

In Southern California, a record number of investors and second-home buyers flooded the market in December, though that was not enough to give sales in the region a bump over the same month a year earlier. Sales fell 1.4% from December 2010 and the median slipped 6.9% to $270,000, its lowest point in 2011.

Statewide, foreclosures and short sales — in which a lender allows a home to be sold for less than the remaining debt due on the property — made up more than half of California's resale market. More than 1 in 3 homes sold in December were foreclosures, while 1 in 5 were short sales, DataQuick said.

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