U.S. existing-home sales rose for the third straight month in December, finishing 2011 with a modest overall increase in sales from the year before, according to a report released today by the National Association of Realtors.

Sales of single-family homes, townhomes, condos and co-ops saw a 1.7 percent rise in 2011, to 4.26 million homes, from 4.19 million in 2010, the report said. Last month, NAR released adjusted estimates for home sales between 2007-10. The 4.19 million cited for sales in 2010 is the "rebenchmarked" figure. Previously reported median home prices or months’ supply of homes for sale were not affected by NAR’s rebenchmarking.

In December, existing-home sales rose 3.6 percent year over year and 5 percent month to month, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.61 million. The national median home price fell 2.5 percent last month, to $164,500.

Existing-home sales (December 2011)

Seasonally adjusted annual rate 4.61 million
% change from Dec. 2010 3.6%
% change from November 2011 5%
National median price $164,500
% change from Dec. 2010 -2.5%
Unsold inventory (months’ supply) 6.2
Share of all-cash buyers 31%
Share of investor buyers 21%
Share of first-time buyers 31%
Share of distressed sales 32%

Source: National Association of Realtors.

On a monthly basis, unsold inventory fell 9.2 percent in December to 2.38 million, which represents a 6.2-month supply at the current sales pace — the lowest inventory level since March 2005, the report said.

"The inventory supply suggests many markets will see prices stabilize or grow moderately in the near future," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, in a statement.

Distressed homes, sold at an average 22 percent discount, accounted for 32 percent of sales last month (19 percent were foreclosures, 13 percent were short sales), down from 36 percent in December 2010, the report said.

All-cash buyers, most of whom are investors, accounted for 31 percent of purchases last month, up from 29 percent a year ago, according to a separate NAR survey. Investors accounted for 21 percent of sales in December, up from 20 percent a year ago. The share of first-time buyers in the market fell to 31 percent of sales from 33 percent in December 2010.

Regionally, the Midwest saw sales rise the most on a yearly basis last month: up 9.5 percent, to 1.04 million. Sales rose 8.3 percent in December compared to the previous month. The region saw the largest median price slip compared to a year ago: down 7.9 percent to $129,100.

The Northeast saw the biggest monthly sales increase, up 10.7 percent to an annual rate of 620,000. The region’s year-over-year increase was smaller, 3.3 percent. The Northeast’s median sales price fell 2.7 percent on an annual basis, to $231,300.

In the South, sales rose 3.5 percent year over year and 2.9 percent month to month in December, to 1.76 million. The region’s median sales price dipped 1.1 percent to $146,900.

The West was the only region to see existing-home sales fall on a yearly basis. Sales decreased by 0.8 percent last month to 1.19 million. On a monthly basis, however, sales rose 2.6 percent. The West also saw the only annual increase in median sales price, a slight 0.3 percent uptick to $205,200.

In a separate report released Tuesday, the California Association of Realtors reported sales of existing single-family homes in the Golden State posted an annual increase for the sixth straight month in December.

December’s year-over-year increase was a slight one, 0.1 percent, to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 520,940. On a month-to-month basis, sales rose 3.3 percent. The statewide median sales price fell 6.2 percent from December 2010, to $285,920.

"Fourth-quarter sales were stronger than we expected, thanks to recent improving consumer confidence and an economy that’s slowly showing signs of growth. As a result, sales came in slightly above our fall projection," said Leslie Appleton-Young, CAR’s vice president and chief economist, in a statement.

"For 2011 as a whole, sales reached a preliminary 497,860 homes sold statewide, up 1.1 percent from the 492,290 homes sold in 2010. However, the statewide median price declined 6.3 percent for the year, to reach a preliminary $285,950, down from the revised $305,010 recorded in 2010.

"Home prices are stabilizing for the distressed market, where we see robust demand, but we continue to see downward pressure on home prices in some higher-end markets."

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