LA JOLLA, Calif. ( DQNews) -- The Southland housing market started 2012 with slightly higher sales and slightly lower prices despite record-low mortgage interest rates. Home sales skewed toward the lower price ranges, which is normal for January, as many traditional buyers retreated and investors snapped up homes at a record level, a real estate information service reported.A total of 14,523 new and resale houses and condos sold in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties last month. That was down 24.5% from 19,247 in December, and up 0.4% from 14,458 in January 2011, according to DataQuick of San Diego. Sales have increased year-over-year for five of the last six months. The sharp sales decline from December is normal for the season. Last month's sales count was 17.8% below the 17,671 average for all the months of January since 1988. A total of 669 newly built homes sold in January, the lowest number for any month since DataQuick started keeping track in 1988. "January numbers have never been very good at providing an indication of what upcoming activity will be like. For that we need to wait until March. What we can determine is that the mortgage market remains dysfunctional. It will be interesting to see how a potential surge of refinance activity plays into the purchase market once the administration's new guidelines are implemented," said John Walsh, DataQuick president. The median price paid for a Southland home last month was $260,000, down 3.7% from $270,000 for both December and January last year. The median was the lowest since $249,000 in May 2009. The median's low point for the current real estate cycle was $247,000 in April 2009, while the high point was $505,000 in mid 2007. The peak-to-trough drop was due to a decline in home values as well as a shift in sales toward lower-cost homes, especially inland foreclosures. Distressed sales made up more than half of January's resale market. Foreclosure resales -- properties foreclosed on in the prior 12 months -- made up 32.6% of resales last month, up from a revised 32.4% in December and down from 36.8% a year earlier. Foreclosure resales hit a high of 56.7% in February 2009 and a low of 32.8% last June.
Short sales -- transactions where the sale price fell short of what was owed on the property -- made up an estimated 21.3% of Southland resales last month. That was a high for the current real estate cycle and compares with 19.6% in both December and January 2011. Meanwhile, credit conditions remained tight. Adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) accounted for 6% of last month's Southland home purchase loans, down from 6.4% in December and 7% a year ago. Since 2000, a monthly average of about 35% of purchase loans were ARMs. Jumbo loans, mortgages above the old conforming limit of $417,000, accounted for 13.6% of last month's purchase lending, down from 15.2% in both December and a year earlier. In the months leading up to the credit crisis that struck in August 2007, jumbos accounted for 4% of the market. Absentee buyers -- mostly investors and some second-home purchasers -- bought a record 26.8% of the Southland homes sold in January, paying a median $193,500. The Inland Empire saw absentee purchases rise to a record 33.6% of all sales. Since 2000, the Southland's absentee buyers purchased a monthly average of 16.9% of all homes sold. Cash purchasers accounted for a near-record 31.4% of January home sales, paying a median $199,000. That was up from 29.8% in December, and up from 30.4% a year earlier. The 10-year monthly average for Southland homes purchased with cash is 15.1%. Cash purchases are where there was no indication in the public record that a corresponding purchase loan was recorded. Government-insured FHA loans, a popular low-down-payment choice among first-time buyers, accounted for 31.2% of all purchase mortgages in January. Last month's FHA level was up from 30.7% in December but down from 33.2% in January 2011. Two years ago FHA loans made up 35.0 % of the purchase loan market, while three years ago it was 38.9 %. Last month 16% of all sales were for $500,000 or more, down from a revised 18.4% in December and down from 18.3% a year earlier. The low point for $500,000-plus sales was in January 2009, when only 13.8% of sales were above that threshold. Over the past decade, a monthly average of 27.2% of homes sold for $500,000 or more.