The median price of a resale house in the county climbed to $236,890 in January, a 2.1% increase from the previous month.
Higher prices probably pushed some buyers out of the market and caused home sales to drop, contrasted with sales a year ago, experts said.
The county's median price, the highest in the state, was up 36.7% from January, 1988, the California Assn. of Realtors reported Thursday.
That kind of appreciation made county houses the most expensive in the nation through much of last year.
The local market for housing is generally expected to slow down slightly this year from last year's frenzied pace, as higher interest rates and higher prices knock some buyers out of the market.
The number of homes sold dropped 9.9% from December and 8.3% from a year ago, while most of the state's urban areas saw sales increase in January from a year ago.
Across the state, home sales rose 24.3% from last year, after adjusting the figures to filter out seasonal fluctuations.
The Realtors' trade association attributed the strong increase to consumers who fear interest rates will continue to rise and who want to buy now.
"January's extremely active residential market was evidence that increasing numbers of home buyers are entering the market in an attempt to beat further increases in mortgage interest rates," said Leo Saunders, president of the trade association.
However, high prices may be stifling some demand for county housing. "Typically, there is going to be some resistance to high prices," said Milt Naylor, regional manager for the Grubb & Ellis Co. brokerage, "and with Orange County's prices we're pushing the price barrier right now."
Ken Agid of the Marketing Department, a housing consultant firm in Irvine, said there are plenty of high-priced houses on the market in the county--both new and older homes--but few houses priced at less than $200,000.
So those lower-priced homes will stay in strong demand, and that's where most of the price increases will come this year, he said.
The price of resale homes should rise at a much slower 12% this year, he said--faster for the lower-priced homes and slower for the higher-priced ones.
MEDIAN HOME PRICES IN AREAS OF STATE
% Change % from Region Jan. 1989 Jan. 1988 Change Dec. 88 Orange County $236,890 $173,311 +36.7 +2.1 Los Angeles $195,460 $158,802 +23.1 +1.7 San Francisco $238,285 $182,898 +30.3 +1.9 San Diego $162,577 $131,041 +24.1 +3.8 Sacramento $94,773 $87,812 +7.9 -3.4 Riverside/San Bernardino $111,944 $93,944 +19.2 -1.7 Ventura $235,827 $175,651 +34.3 +0.4 California Average $184,711 $150,010 +23.1 +4.2
Source: California Assn. of Realtors