PHOENIX (DQNews) --Phoenix-area home sales surged in March, rising more than usual from February and posting a year-over-year gain for the third consecutive month as sales to absentee buyers hit a new high. The median sale price fell below the year-ago level for the ninth consecutive month, reflecting weakness in pricing, higher sales of condos and other sub-$100,000 homes, and extraordinarily slow sales for newly built homes, which are typically more expensive, a real estate information service reported.

A total of 10,352 new and resale houses and condos closed escrow in March in the combined Maricopa-Pinal counties metropolitan area. That was up 44.3% from the month before and up 7.5% from a year earlier, according to San Diego-based DataQuick, which tracks real estate trends nationally via public property records.

A sharp rise in sales from February to March is normal for the season, although this year's jump was larger than usual. On average, Phoenix-area sales have risen about 30% between those two months since 1994, when DataQuick's complete Phoenix region statistics begin.

March's sales were the highest for that month since 10,712 homes sold in March 2007. This March's sales tally was just 1.0% short of the average number of sales for the month of March since 1994. However, sales of newly built homes were the lowest for a March in 14 years, mainly because builders can't compete with the pricing on distressed properties.

Home sales below $100,000 represented 41.2% of all transactions in March, up from 40.0% in February and 30.6% in March 2010. Last month's sales below $100,000 were the highest since the housing downturn began.

Absentee buyers, who are mainly investors, purchased 47.1% of all Phoenix-area homes sold in March - the highest level for any month in more than a decade (this particular statistic goes back to 2000). March's absentee level was up from 46.1% in February and 39.8% a year earlier. Absentee buyers, who paid a median $99,220 in March, can include second-home purchasers and others who indicate at the time of sale that the property tax bill will go to a different address.

Cash buyers represented 45.4% of all sales in March, down from a record 48.0% in February and 39.1% a year ago. Last month's cash buyers paid a median $87,500, down from $90,000 in February and $108,600 a year ago. Specifically, these were transactions where there was no indication of a purchase loan recorded at the time of sale. Some of these "cash" buyers could have used alternative financing arrangements outside of a typical, recorded purchase mortgage, and in some cases they might take out mortgages after their purchases.

In the overall Phoenix market in March, buyers paid a median $119,000 for all new and resale houses and condos that closed escrow. That was down 0.8% from the month before and down 11.9% from a year earlier. The median has fallen on a year-over-year basis for nine consecutive months.

The Phoenix area's March median was 14.3% below the highest median recorded over the past year -$139,900 last June - and it stood 54.9% lower than the all-time peak of $264,100 in June 2006.

Another key price gauge analysts watch, the median price paid per square foot for existing single-family detached houses, fell to $64 in March, down from $66 the month before and down 14.7% from a year ago. It was the seventh consecutive month in which the median paid per square foot dipped year-over-year. March's figure was the lowest since April 2009, when it was also $64, and it stood 62.6% below the $171 peak in May and June of 2006.

The use of FHA-insured mortgages - popular with first-time buyers - represented 35.4% of all purchase loans in March. That was up from 33.8% in February but down from 42.7% a year earlier and well below the peak for FHA loans, which was 55.3% in September 2008.

Distressed property sales - the combination of sales of foreclosed homes and "short sales" - continued to dominate the Phoenix market, representing nearly two out of every three resale transactions in March.

Foreclosure resales, defined as homes that had been foreclosed on in the prior 12 months, represented 53.1% of March resales, up from 52.4% in February and 51.5% a year ago. The peak level for foreclosure resales was 66.2% in March 2009.

Short sales - transactions where the sale price fell short of what was owed on the property - made up an estimated 12.5% of Phoenix-area sales in March. That was down a tad from an estimated 12.7% in February and 13.4% a year earlier. Two years ago the estimate was 7.6%.

Foreclosures edged higher in March. Lenders foreclosed on 6,024 house and condo units in the two-county Phoenix area in March, up 1.6% from February and up 0.3% from a year earlier. During the first three months of this year, foreclosures rose 9.2% from the same period last year. The foreclosure figures are based on the number of Trustees Deeds filed with county recorder offices. The document signals that a home was lost to foreclosure.

The foreclosure totals can include units that the county assessor has designated as condos, but are currently used as apartments (e.g. a 100-unit complex designated as condos but used as apartments could be foreclosed on and those units would be reflected in the foreclosure total for that month). For this reason and others, the number of homes foreclosed on has seesawed, and a single month's increase or decline doesn't necessarily indicate the beginning of a lasting trend.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.