California home sales rise in December on stronger economy, lower rates; price gains moderate

California home sales jumped in December, buoyed by a stronger economy and lower interest rates, a research firm said Thursday. Prices rose modestly.

The median sales price for new and existing single-family houses and condominiums was $388,000, up 1.8 percent from $381,000 in November and up 6.3 percent from $365,000 in December 2013, according to CoreLogic DataQuick.

It was the 34th straight month of annual price increases, but percentage gains have been single-digit since July.

There were 36,468 homes sold, up 23.8 percent from an anemic 29,459 sales in November and up 4.3 percent from 34,949 sales in December 2013. Sales were particularly strong in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The numbers suggest job growth and low borrowing rates are attracting buyers who live in their homes, as opposed to cash-paying investors. Absentee buyers, mostly investors, made up 18.3 percent of San Francisco Bay Area sales last month, down from 22.5 percent a year earlier.

Absentee buyers accounted for 23.4 percent of Southern California sales, down from 26.9 percent a year earlier and the lowest level since October 2010.

"You don't want to extrapolate too much from one month but the numbers suggest regular buyers are starting to step up," said CoreLogic DataQuick analyst Andrew LePage.

Tight inventories kept a lid on sales. The California Association of Realtors said Thursday there was a 3.3-month supply of unsold single-family homes in the state last month, down from 4.4 months in November and 3 months in December 2013. A normal supply is considered five to seven months.

Analysts said they didn't anticipate any surge in home construction and that it was unclear if there would be enough sellers to satisfy demand. Selma Hepp, senior economist for the Realtors' group, said inventories improved throughout the year but fell in December as buyers snapped up remaining supplies.

The median sales price in the San Francisco Bay Area was $603,000, little changed from $601,000 in November and up 9.9 percent from $548,500 in December 2013, CoreLogic DataQuick said. There were 7,456 homes sold in the nine-county region, up 24.2 percent from November and up 14.1 percent from December 2013.

The median sales price in Southern California was $415,000, barely changed from $412,000 in November and up 5.1 percent from $395,000 in December 2013. It was the smallest annual price increase in percentage terms since April 2012. There were 19,205 homes sold in the six-county region, up 22.8 percent from November and up 4.3 percent from December 2013.

December sales are typically higher than the previous month but the numbers alleviated concerns after an unusually weak November.

"There's lots of solid job growth and people are just more confident," said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. "I think November was a blip. December is back on trend."