Sales of existing homes in Jackson County during the three-month period from March to May rose 44.3 percent compared to the same three months a year ago.

Sales of existing homes in Jackson County during the three-month period from March to May rose 44.3 percent compared to the same three months a year ago.

There were 417 sales during March to May 2009, compared to 289 during the same period in 2008, according to figures compiled by the Southern Oregon Multiple Listing Service.

That made the third straight three-month interval of double-digit increases in home sales.

"We've seen a very impressive pattern of growth in existing home sales," said Steve Blanton, chief executive of the Rogue Valley Association of Realtors and SOMLS. "Consumers are deciding that conditions favor their re-entry into the market."

The median sales price for Jackson County homes during the three-month period dropped to $190,000, exactly where it stood in 2004. The median price is the "middle" price — there were as many above $190,000 as below.

While the falling median price reflects a normalization of the market, real estate professionals say the future course is still unclear as the high season of home-buying begins.

Countywide, the median price for existing homes fell 15.6 percent from a similar three-month period in 2008. For new home sales, where activity has dropped 64 percent from spring last year, the median price fell 6.2 percent to $229,900.

"Everyone needs to understand what spot we're at in the cycle, which is driving valuation up or down," said Randy McBee of Windermere Investors Marketplace in Medford. "One of the unpredictable things is any kind of government incentives. The $8,000 tax credit stimulated the lower market and allowed people to go into next step."

Distressed sales continue to be a major driver in the local market, as well. Just under half, or 47.5 percent, of the sales were bank-owned, foreclosure sales or short sales.

"Foreclosed homes and short sales frequently sell for less than a non-distressed property and make such a large part of sales right now that they may be pushing the median down artificially," Blanton said.

There haven't been a lot of new home starts of late, and much of the remaining inventory of houses built on speculation has been sold, McBee said.

"That's not weighing on the market, and once we move through the bank-owned property I think we'll see a gradual climb," McBee said.

Although the housing inventory has dropped nearly 27 percent from this time last year, it can still exert downward pressure. Sometimes it shows up an inconvenient times, he said.

"I'm aware of an appraisal that came in lower than what the buyer and seller perceived a good price," McBee said. "All of a sudden the agreed-upon price was 10 percent above the appraised price. I've seen both things happen, where I was pleasantly surprised when the value appraised came in better than expected.

"Appraising is a human event — the appraiser is a human being and can pick and choose the (comparable sales) they want," he said. "Honestly, the appraiser has fiduciary responsibilities to the lender and took the right road, but they could justify the higher number too."

Defaults will continue to be a factor. In April, for example, notice was served to begin foreclosure proceedings on more than 200 Jackson County properties. Foreclosures linked to job loss or negative amortization loans, (where the monthly payment can nearly double if the amount owed reaches 110 percent of value) will likely add to the pool of distressed property, too.

"It can bring on stresses equal to, if not greater than, the subprime movement we've already been through," McBee said. "It's not a bad time to sell before that hits the market."

The average house was on the market for 109 days before selling, up from 107 days a year ago.

With the probability of interest rates climbing this summer, Liz Forster of Coldwell Banker ProWest Realty surmised that activity will remain on the uptick for a while.

"People are making sure they're getting a good buy," Forster said. "If the pricing is right it's going to appraise right. I've been seeing a little of everything — even someone buying a second home because of the pricing."