March home sales reached their highest level in Sonoma County in five years, but the median price continued to slide and is back near its lowest point since the housing market crashed almost four years ago.
Buyers purchased 399 single-family homes last month, an increase of more than 90 homes from February, according to The Press Democrat’s monthly housing report compiled by Coldwell Banker manager Rick Laws.
The last time more homes were sold in March was 2006, when 459 properties exchanged hands.
But the county’s median price dropped last month to $315,000. The price has fallen almost 15 percent from August, when it stood at $370,000. It is now within 3 percent of the post-crash low of $305,000 in February 2009.
The March median price is in the same range as it was 11 years ago, during the summer of 2000. The median peaked at $619,000 in August 2005 before plunging more than 50 percent.
Real estate agents gave mixed reaction to the data. Some expressed satisfaction at the strong March sales, while others pointed to the slumping prices.
Mike Kelly, an agent with Keller Williams, said multiple listing service data showed that the number of buyers who signed contracts in the first three months on 2011 was the highest in four year.
“This is the best first quarter we’ve had by far,” Kelly said. He said the result was noteworthy because it happened without government housing tax credits and without as many foreclosures as came to market a few years back.
Fifty-five percent of March sales involved foreclosures and short sales, where the sale prices was less than the amount owed on the mortgages. The portion of distressed properties was slightly less than in the past three months. But some agents maintained the price drop reflected a preponderance of such sales.
“The stuff that we’re getting in is just really low, super-low-priced stuff,” said Laws.
But Belinda Andrews, a broker associate with Century 21, said the market remains “very soft” and features a strange mix of rising sales and falling prices.
Agents are closing sales, she said, “but we’re closing for less.”
Andrews said the market appears “really close to the bottom.”
The agents said the current market features homes with more-affordable prices, but that also means that a significant portion of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. After two years of flat prices, many think it will take years to see the picture change significantly.
Even so, agents predicted prices will follow their typical seasonal increases in spring and summer as more homeowners place properties on the market. Many hope the stronger March sales provide a sign of such a trend.
“We’re definitely kind of pulling our way out of this,” said Debra Johnson, a broker with California Prudential Realty in Guerneville. “I think we’re at the bottom of this thing.”

— Robert Digitale