First-time home buyers responding to improved affordability conditions, and lower prices of foreclosures and short sales, impacted metropolitan area median home prices in the first quarter, while existing-home sales remained sluggish in many parts of the country, according to the latest survey by the National Association of Realtors.

With first-time buyers accounting for half of all purchases during the first quarter, 134 out of 152 metropolitan areas reported lower median existing single-family home prices in comparison with the first quarter of 2008, while 18 metros had price gains.

Many buyers sought deeply discounted distressed sales – foreclosures and short sales – which accounted for nearly half of transactions in the first quarter and weighed down median home prices in most markets.

The national median existing single-family price was $169,000, which is 13.8 percent below the first quarter of 2008 when conditions were closer to normal. The median is where half sold for more and half sold for less, but distressed homes typically are selling for 20 percent less than traditional homes and are downwardly skewing median prices.

NAR President Charles McMillan, a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Dallas-Fort Worth, said there are two levels of pricing in the current market. “Traditional homes in good condition have held their value much better, so owners shouldn’t be overly concerned about median prices. Most sellers can expect a good return if they’ve been in their home for a normal period of homeownership and haven’t excessively tapped their equity,” he said.

“Given the unusual mix of conditions around the country, the expertise and negotiating skills of a Realtor have never been more important,” McMillan said. “Unparalleled knowledge of local markets is crucial for consumers.”

Total state existing-home sales, including single-family and condo, were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.59 million units in the first quarter, down 3.2 percent from 4.74 million units in the fourth quarter, and are 6.8 percent below the 4.93 million-unit pace in the first quarter of 2008.

Seventeen states experienced sales increases from the fourth quarter, and six states were higher than a year ago; complete data for one state was not available. Sales in the first quarter do not reflect an impact from the first-time home buyer tax credit.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, sees the market in a lull before an upturn. “Over the past couple months, contract activity for home sales, buyer traffic and inquiries about the $8,000 tax credit have all increased,” he said.

“Close to 455,000 buyers purchased their first home during the first quarter, and those are likely just the first wave of new buyers coming into the market – they’re critical for a housing recovery,” Yun said. “Housing affordability conditions are at record high levels and we expect a measurable increase in home sales during the second half of the year, which would help stabilize prices in most areas.”

According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate on a 30-year conventional fixed-rate mortgage fell to a record low 5.06 percent in the first quarter from 5.86 percent in the fourth quarter; the rate was 5.88 percent in the first quarter of 2008.

Yun said some areas showed dramatic drops in home prices. “In areas with the biggest price declines, we also see much higher levels of distressed sales which are distorting the data,” Yun said. “We are very much in a bifurcated market with sharp differences between foreclosures and short sales on one hand, and traditional homes on the other. In many cases homes are selling below replacement construction costs, which speaks to great value in the current market.”

There were bright spots in the first quarter. The largest sales gain from a year ago was in Nevada, up 116.8 percent, followed by California which rose 80.6 percent, Arizona, up 50.2 percent, and Florida with a 25.0 percent increase. Virginia and Minnesota also experienced double-digit sales increases.

The largest single-family home price increase in the first quarter was in the Cumberland area of Maryland and West Virginia, where the median price of $114,900 rose 21.1 percent from a year ago. Next was the Davenport-Moline-Rock Island area of Iowa and Illinois at $100,300, up 13.8 percent from the first quarter of 2008, followed by Columbia, Mo., where the median price increased 6.0 percent to $152,600.

Median first-quarter metro area single-family home prices ranged from a very affordable $30,300 in the Saginaw-Saginaw Township North area of Michigan to $570,000 in Honolulu. The second most expensive area was the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area of California, at $450,000, followed by the Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine area of California at $435,800.

In the condo sector, metro area condominium and cooperative prices – covering changes in 56 metro areas – showed the national median existing-condo price was $172,800 in the first quarter, down 20.2 percent from the first quarter of 2008. Five metros showed annual increases in the median condo price and 51 areas had declines.

Data tables for both metro area home prices and state existing-home sales are posted at: For areas not covered in the tables, contact your local association of Realtors®.