The National Association of Realtors yesterday released existing-home sales figures that put a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full spin on the numbers: total sales last year were 12.8% lower than the prior year; at the same time, the group says that the 5.7 million sales of single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops made 2007 the fifth-highest year on record. 

   Sales in December dipped to a seasonally-adjusted rate of 4.89 million, or 2.2% lower than the November's pace and a whopping 22% lower than the year-earlier period. The association says December's figures followed what had been several months of stable activity.

   "Home sales remain weak despite improved affordability conditions in many parts of the country," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun, "but we could get a quick boost to the market if loan limits are raised in combination with the bold cut in the Fed funds rate. Home prices are lower, mortgage interest rates continue to decline and incomes are higher, but many potential buyers are delaying a purchase."

   Total housing inventory fell 7.4% at the end of December to 3.91 million existing homes available for sale. "The fall in inventory in December is encouraging, but inventories remain elevated and buyers have a clear edge over sellers in many markets," Yun said.

   The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $208,400 in December, down 6.0% from a year earlier when the median was $221,600. Because home sales have slowed the most in higher-cost markets, there is a downward distortion to the national median as the mix of closed sales has changed over the past year. For all of 2007, the median price was $218,900, down 1.4% from a median of $221,900 in 2006.

   NAR President Richard Gaylord said current housing prices vary widely depending on the region, with higher prices found in such areas as San Antonio, Syracuse, Springfield, Ill., and Sarasota, Fla.