Bay Area home sales in March reached their highest level in five years, which analysts attributed to lower prices, low interest rates and an improving economy.

Buyers last month purchased 7,694 houses and condos in the nine-county Bay Area, according to DataQuick, a San Diego-based real estate information service. That was up 9 percent from a year earlier and the largest amount for the month since 8,317 homes were sold in March 2007.

The median price paid for all sales climbed 10 percent from February to $358,000, but was down nearly 1 percent from a year earlier.

The median has declined on a year-over-year basis every month since October 2010, though last month’s decline was the smallest for that period.

DataQuick John Walsh called the market activity an incremental but positive development.

“That said, there’s a long way to go,” Walsh said. “Two of the big issues to watch closely are how fast distressed properties are being put on the market, and the availability of, or lack of availability of, mortgage financing.”

The low point of the current real estate cycle was $290,000 in March 2009. The peak was $665,000 in June/July 2007. Around half of the drop in prices resulted from a decline in home values, while the other half reflected a shift in the mix of homes sold.

Foreclosures and short sales made up 44 percent of the market last month, down from 48 percent a year earlier.
Absentee buyers – mostly investors – in March purchased 24 percent the homes sold, down from nearly 26 percent in February.

— Robert Digitale