Click photo to enlarge
Across the street from an elementary school, this Jackson Avenue house in Livermore, Calif., is for sale on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. The home has four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a three-car garage.(Staff)

Home sales in the East Bay edged up during the month of January from a year ago while median prices were lower, continuing a trend of falling prices and slow sales in a struggling housing market.

Still, things are starting to improve. Pending sales for January are much better than a year ago, providing a glimmer of hope for the hard-hit market.

In Alameda County, a total of 969 new and single-family houses and condominiums closed escrow last month, up 3.5 percent from a year ago, but the median sales price of $308,181 was 9.6 percent lower, according to a report released Thursday by MDA DataQuick. Home sales that closed last month entered the escrow process in November and December.

In Contra Costa County, about 1,092 homes closed escrow, a 1.3 percent gain from a year ago, while the median sales price of $240,000 was 6.7 percent lower.

In the nine-county Bay Area, 4,966 homes changed hands last month, a 2.3 percent increase, while the median sale price of $338,000 was 3.4 percent lower.

But while sales have been sluggish, local real estate agents expect to see improvement in the coming months.

"The big story is that pending sales are up quite dramatically in our area" for January, said Paul Ward, broker-associate with the Danville office of Keller Williams Realty.

He pointed to multiple-listing figures that showed pending sales for single-family existing homes in Pleasant Hill, Martinez, Concord and Clayton were up 66.1 percent last month compared to January 2010.

In Lafayette, Orinda and Moraga the totals were up 18.5 percent; in San Ramon, they rose 48.5 percent from January 2010. However, pending sales in Walnut Creek last month were down 2.2 percent from January 2010, he said.

"I do have hopes for a better spring market," said Linnette Edwards, associate broker in the Piedmont office of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate. "I have noticed there is a new set of buyers and investors coming into the market in early January."

The upshot is that the second quarter will see an increase in both pending and closed sales compared to a year ago, she said.

And while interest rates are still very low -- in the 5 percent range for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage -- they have been climbing in the past couple of months, which is pushing some fence-sitters into buying a house, Edwards said. "The market is definitely picking up from last year," she said.

Rick Turley, president of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage of the Bay Area, said he also is seeing an increase in pending-sales activity.

Overall, pending sales in Alameda and Contra Costa counties were 34 percent higher last month compared to January 2010, even though at the same time last year home sales were being stimulated by tax credits that have since expired, he said.

"The tax credit was still in full swing last year "... and even with that activity a year ago, we have a 34 percent increase," Turley said. "It feels much busier right now than it at this same time in 2010. More people are going into escrow."

According to John Walsh, president of DataQuick, "the market is still dominated by distress sales and bargain hunting. We're seeing little discretionary activity."

January marked the fourth consecutive month where median prices dropped on a year-to-year basis after a year of annual gains.

"There were less medium and higher prices homes sold in those months," Turley said.

That does not appear to be the case with January's pending sales.

"It seem like a healthy mix," he said. "I think we are looking to see some good increase in that median price in the future."

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-952-2690.

BAY AREA JANUARY HOME SALES

HEADERS
Sales Jan. 2011
% change in one year
Median price Jan. 2011
% change in one year
% of Jan. 2011 foreclosure resales
% of Jan. 2010 foreclosure resales

CONTENT
Alameda County
969 +3.5
$308,181 -9.6
32.7%
36.0 %

Contra Costa County
1,092 +1.3
$240,000 -6.7
44.9
49.7

San Joaquin County
735 -7.5
$159,500 -0.6
56.6
60.6

Solano County
448 -3.0
$182,000 -9.5
51.4
57.5

Bay Area
4,966 +2.3
$338,000 -3.4
34.7
36.3

Source: MDA DataQuick