The Bay Area's single-family home market is leaving the darkest days of the housing crash behind, a report from housing information company DataQuick showed Thursday.

For six months or more, median single-family home prices have gained by double digits on a yearly basis in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, DataQuick said.

Foreclosures are edging closer to normal levels and sales of midpriced homes are increasing. While there are too few houses on sale to meet the demand, the market is looking up, real estate experts say.

"Everybody's forgotten where we were," said Jennifer Branchini, president-elect of the Bay East Association of Realtors. "It wasn't a great place."

LARKSPUR, CA - FEBRUARY 21:  A sale pending sign stands in front of a home for sale on February 21, 2013 in Larkspur, California.   (Photo by Justin
LARKSPUR, CA - FEBRUARY 21: A sale pending sign stands in front of a home for sale on February 21, 2013 in Larkspur, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) (Justin Sullivan)

In Alameda County, the median price of $402,000 in February was up 15.5 percent from February 2012; Contra Costa County's $305,000 was up 25.8 percent; San Mateo saw a 22.6 percent gain to $692,500, and Santa Clara County's $625,000 was up 27.6 percent.

Median sales prices for existing single-family homes in the Bay Area have climbed back 44.6 percent since they hit bottom in March 2009 during a wave of low-end foreclosure sales and a dormant mid- to high-end market.

Year-over-year prices have been increasing for months through a combination of market forces, including too few homes for sale and a gaggle of free-spending investors, many of them paying premium prices in cash. Investors include hedge funds, foreign buyers drawn to what are relatively low prices compared with real estate in their home countries, and mom-and-pop buyers of one or two homes for retirement income.


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"There is quite a bit of excitement out there," said Carl San Miguel, president of the Santa Clara County Association of Realtors. "But there's a new battle because of the limited inventory, with frustration from buyers making offers and coming back empty-handed."

Sales in Santa Clara County dropped 15.1 percent from a year earlier; San Mateo County was down 23.8 percent; Contra Costa County fell 6.1 percent and Alameda County was down 2 percent.

Many move-up buyers are still on the fence, said Jennifer Hatter of Empire Realty in Danville.

"Move-up buyers are afraid to put their houses on the market without knowing where they're going to go," she said. "They're afraid. What if they can't get another house?"

Steve Wilner, a sales executive and client of Hatter's, just sold a Pleasanton home with six offers, five of which were above asking price. "I wouldn't want to be a buyer in this market," he said. "As a seller, we held all the cards."

"Everything that gets listed is going into contract very quickly," said Bob Barrie of Keller Williams in Campbell. Barrie said the number of Santa Clara County homes and condos put up for sale has been growing this month, however.

"In a month or two, I think you'll see sales explode," he said.

The drying up of foreclosures was evident in a shift from sales of low-priced homes to more expensive homes in Contra Costa County. Total sales of all types of houses there that were priced under $300,000 fell 28.8 percent from the previous year, while sales between $300,000 and $800,000 were up 34.7 percent, according to DataQuick.

Across the nine-county Bay Area, condo prices were almost unchanged from January but up 35.4 percent from February 2012 to a median of $325,000.

Buyers paying all cash accounted for a record 31.9 percent of all sales in the nine-county Bay Area in February, compared with a monthly average of 12.9 percent going back to 1988.

Absentee buyers, which the company said are "mostly investors," purchased 28.2 percent of all Bay Area homes, also an all-time high in data going back to 2000.

Sales of distressed property -- mostly foreclosures and short sales -- made up 35 percent of the market for existing homes. Short sales predominated, as foreclosures, which peaked at 52 percent of the market in February 2009, have dropped to 13.6 percent of sales, closer to average levels. The average over the past 17 years is about 10 percent, DataQuick said.

Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419 Follow him at Twitter.com/petecarey.