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Originally published January 4, 2012 at 12:34 PM | Page modified January 5, 2012 at 7:53 AM

King County median home price falls by double digits again

More sales. Lower prices. Less inventory. That's what the Seattle-area real-estate market looked like in December,

Seattle Times business reporter

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More sales. Lower prices. Less inventory.

That's what the Seattle-area real-estate market looked like in December, according to statistics released Wednesday by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

The picture hasn't changed much since October. Analysts say that's when "distressed properties" — bank-repossessed homes and short sales — began to influence the market as never before.

They account for about one-third of all sales now, by most estimates.

They're pushing prices down: The median price of houses sold in King County in December was $320,000, down 13.5 percent from December 2010, according to the listing service.

It was the third straight monthly double-digit drop. Condo prices fell even more steeply: 18 percent.

Probably because they're cheaper, distressed properties also are pushing sales volumes up compared to a year ago: King County single-family home sales were up 0.5 percent, condo sales 20 percent, Snohomish County house sales nearly 21 percent last month.

What's more, analysts say, competition from short sales and bank-repossessed homes almost certainly is discouraging many prospective sellers from putting their houses on the market: in King County, 25 percent fewer homes were listed for sale last month than in December 2010.

"If people aren't forced to sell, they're not [selling]," said land-use economist Matthew Gardner. "They're willing to wait until they see more signs of stability in the market."

Windermere Real Estate President OB Jacobi agreed. "Many would-be sellers are still wary of the market, and as a result, there are fewer homes for sale," he said in a statement.

Reports that more homeowners are falling behind on their mortgages suggest the distressed-property pipeline won't unclog anytime soon, said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington.

That should keep prices from rising, he said.

"It'll be a long, slow grind," said blogger Tim Ellis, of Seattlebubble.com. But lower prices should keep sales volumes on the increase for much of this year, he added.

Distressed-property sales are most common in Southwest King County — Burien, SeaTac, Des Moines, Federal Way. Not surprisingly, that area led the county in December in both sales activity and price declines.

While in the rest of the county sales volumes were flat, at best, in Southwest King closed sales jumped 35 percent year-over-year for houses — and a whopping 135 percent for condos.

The median price there was down 20 percent for houses, 48 percent for condos.

Fifty-four condos changed hands in Southwest King County in December. The median price, meaning half sold for less, was just $65,750.

Distressed-property sales "are having a huge drag on what I refer to as real-people sales," said Tony Hettler, who owns John L. Scott Real Estate offices in Burien and Des Moines.

But his offices did 20 percent more business last year than in 2010, he said, and the low-priced distressed inventory is providing opportunities for first-time buyers and would-be landlords.

For example: Hettler said he showed a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot, bank-owned condo in Des Moines Wednesday.

The asking price: $38,000.

It needs some paint and new carpet, Hettler said, but nothing a couple thousand dollars won't fix. "If you're an investor, how can you pass it up is the question."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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