Median existing-home prices are increasing at respectable rates in most metropolitan areas but the rate of growth has cooled, according to the latest quarterly survey by National Association of Realtors.

The association’s fourth-quarter metro area home price report, covering changes in 127 metropolitan statistical areas, shows 33 areas with double-digit annual increases in median existing-home prices and 22 with generally small price declines. A total of 74 metros appreciated faster than the national historic norm.

The national median existing-home price was $171,600 in the fourth quarter, 6.6 percent higher than a year earlier when the median price was $161,100. The median is a typical market price where half of the homes sold for more and half sold for less.

David Lereah, NAR’s chief economist, said home prices are coming off of their strongest gains in 23 years. “In the third quarter the median price was 10 percent above a year earlier, the strongest rate of appreciation since the fourth quarter of 1980,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is a natural easing after a record pace of home sales in the third quarter. Even so, current appreciation is well above the high end for normal price growth.”

Over time, home price gains typically are one-to-two percentage points above the rate of inflation; the Consumer Price Index rose only 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier.

The strongest price increase was in the Riverside-San Bernardino area of California where the fourth quarter price of $239,400 rose 28.9 percent from a year earlier. Next came Sarasota, Fla., at $222,100, up 26.1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2002. Third was the Los Angeles area, with a fourth quarter median price of $382,200, up 24.5 percent in the last year.

NAR President Walt McDonald, broker-owner of Walt McDonald Real Estate in Riverside, Calif., said tight inventories are responsible for the strong price gains. “There continues to be a shortage of homes available for sale in most of the country, resulting in a supply-demand imbalance,” he said. “The good news is we’re expecting more equilibrium in the market this year and the median price nationally should rise about 5 percent.”

Lereah said the areas with plentiful supply are primarily the 22 metros where there were price declines. “These areas, concentrated in the nation’s midsection, generally have experienced job losses,” he said. “However, none of them are high-price markets or have experienced prolonged periods of sharp price increases, and 21 out of the 22 are showing full-year price gains. Most of these also are areas with high home ownership rates, room to grow and historically low appreciation, and they should improve as the labor markets recover,” he said.

Median fourth-quarter metro area resale prices ranged from $83,800 in Buffalo-Niagara Falls, N.Y., to nearly seven times that amount in the San Francisco Bay area where the median price was $574,300. The second most expensive area in the United States was Anaheim-Santa Ana (Orange Co., Calif.) at $526,800, followed by San Diego at $456,700.

Other low-cost markets include Waterloo-Cedar Falls, Iowa, the second least-costly area, at $86,500, and Springfield, Ill., with a fourth-quarter typical resale home price of $89,000.

Regionally, the strongest increase was in the Northeast where the median resale price during the fourth quarter was $194,700, rising 14.5 percent from a year earlier. The strongest increase in the region was in the Hartford area of Connecticut at $214,700, up 17 percent from the fourth quarter of 2002, followed by Providence, R.I., with a median price of $240,700, up 16.8 percent. The Atlantic City, N.J., area, where the typical resale price was $172,200, rose 14.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2002. Seven other Northeastern metros had double-digit price gains.

The median resale price in the West was $238,600 during the fourth quarter, up 11.1 percent from a year ago. After the Riverside-San Bernardino and Los Angeles areas, the strongest increase in the region was in the Anaheim-Santa Ana area, up 21.2 percent from a year earlier, followed by San Diego, where the median price rose 20.4 percent from the fourth quarter of 2002. Six other Western metro areas also experienced double-digit price gains.

In the South, the median existing-home price of $157,400 was 4.8 percent higher than the fourth quarter of 2002. After Sarasota, the strongest increase in the South was in the Miami-Hialeah area of Florida, where the fourth quarter median price of $236,900 rose 22.9 percent from a year earlier. Next came the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton-Delray Beach area at $252,900, up 19.2 percent, and the Bradenton area of Florida, where the median price of $186,100 was 18.7 percent higher than a year earlier. Eight other Southern metro areas experienced double-digit increases in their median price.

In the Midwest, the fourth-quarter median existing-home price of $141,100 increased 2.3 percent from the same period in 2002. The strongest increase in the Midwest was in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where the median price of $211,700 was 11.5 percent higher than the fourth quarter of 2002. Next came Madison, Wis., at $198,400 in the fourth quarter, up 9 percent, and the Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah area of Wisconsin at $121,300, up 8.4 percent in the last year.

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