The number of Southern California homes sold in January edged down to the lowest level in five years as many potential buyers decided to sit on the fence during the real estate market’s off-season, a real estate information service reported.

A total of 20,085 new and resale homes were sold in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties last month, down 30.6 percent from 28,952 in December, and down 7.4 percent from 21,680 for January last year, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

A decline from December to January is normal for the season, DataQuick reported. Last month’s sales count was the lowest for any January since 2001 when 18,010 homes were sold. The strongest January in DataQuick’s statistics was in 1989 when 23,379 homes were sold; the weakest was in 1992 when 10,994 homes were sold.

“Trends in January and February are notoriously bad at predicting upcoming activity. Is the market taking a breather? Or is it starting to tumble? It’s impossible to say, there’s nothing really ominous in the numbers, but we won’t know for another couple of months,” said Marshall Prentice, DataQuick president.

The median price paid for a Southern California home was $469,000 last month, down 2.1 percent from November and December’s record high of $479,000. Last month’s median was up 13 percent from $415,000 for January 2005. The median always drops from December to January because of changes in market mix; January is always a weak month for new-home sales.

The typical monthly mortgage payment that Southland buyers committed themselves to paying was $2,162 last month, down from $2,255 for the previous month, and up from $1,822 for January a year ago. Adjusted for inflation, current payments are about 0.5 percent below typical payments in the spring of 1989, the peak of the prior real estate cycle.

Indicators of market distress are still largely absent, and foreclosure activity is edging up from its bottom, but is still low. Down-payment sizes are stable, as are flipping rates and non-owner-occupied buying activity, DataQuick reported.

DataQuick, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, monitors real estate activity nationwide and provides information to consumers, educational institutions, public agencies, lending institutions, title companies and industry analysts.

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