California home values’ year-over-year climb is first since 2010

California’s median home price posted its first year-over-year gain since the fall of 2010 as sales picked up with the end of the traditionally sluggish winter season.

The Golden State’s median home price in March rose 0.8% from the same month last year to hit $251,000. It was the first year-over-year increase since September 2010; that October, home values sank after the expiration of popular tax credits aimed at boosting the market. Last month’s median price rose 5% from February, San Diego real estate firm DataQuick reported Thursday.

The year-over-year increase was small, but if prices hold, it could mark the first step toward a recovery.

“While the changes we’re seeing are incremental, they’re incremental in a positive direction,” DataQuick President John Walsh said.

The bottom of the market was hit during the depths of the financial crisis in April 2009, when the state’s median home price was $221,000.

The median is the point at which half the homes in the state sold for more and half for less. The median can be influenced by the types of homes selling. The high number of foreclosed homes and other so-called distressed properties remain a sizable weight on the market, and such sales have helped pull down the median price for months.

The number of sales increased 2.9% from March 2010 to hit 37,481. That was up 26.5% from February, a normal surge as winter gives way to spring and more people begin moving.

Sales of distressed homes — foreclosures and short sales — made up more than half of the market. Of all previously owned homes sold last month, 1 in 3 was a foreclosure and close to 1 in 5 was a short sale, in which a home is sold for less than the debt on the property.

In Southern California, the median home price of $280,000 was flat, down just 0.2% from March 2011, and a 5.8% increase from February. The number of sales increased 2.8% year-over-year to 19,953 homes in the six-county region, DataQuick reported. Sales improved the most in Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties.

Bay Area home sales notched their best March in five years as prices appeared to level off. Sales rose 9.1% from March 2011, totaling 7,694 across the nine-county region, and up 34.9% from the prior month. The region’s median price was $358,000, down 0.6% from the same month a year earlier and up 10.2% from February.

The median price improved year-over-year in Napa, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. In San Francisco County, it was unchanged.

Nationally in March, buyers picked up 2.6% fewer existing homes — pushing the seasonally adjusted annual rate down to 4.48 million from February’s 4.6 million, according to the National Assn. of Realtors.

In the West, sales were down 7.4% from February and down 0.9% from March 2011. Last month’s median price of $198,300 was 1.6% higher than that of a year earlier.

Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.