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Despite a sharp jump in sales of upper-end properties, Sonoma County home sales slowed in January.

Buyers purchased 272 single-family homes last month, according to The Press Democrat's monthly housing report compiled by Pacific Union International Vice President Rick Laws. Sales fell 5 percent from a year ago and were the lowest for January in three years.

But the month featured a tale of two markets. Sales of homes priced below $400,000 declined 45 percent in January from a year ago.

In contrast, 57 homes sold for $700,000 or more, compared to 21 a year earlier. Of last month's transactions, 22 homes sold for $1 million or more, compared to eight a year ago.

The upper-end sales were a sign that "health and recovery has worked its way up the market," said Laws.

The county's housing market rebounded last year after a historic bubble and crash, which took the median price from a record $619,000 in August 2005 to a low of $305,000 in February 2009.

For January, the median sales price was $461,000, down less than 1 percent from December but 26 percent higher than a year ago.

Eileen Morelli, the operating principal and broker for the four Keller Williams offices in Sonoma and Napa counties, said the higher-end properties selling last month included both city and country properties.

February sales remain slow, she said. But activity should increase as usual this spring because agents have lined up plenty of sellers who are getting ready to put homes on the market.

"They're doing the last-minute fix-ups," Morelli said.

Laws agreed that many sellers are thinking they'll get more for their homes if they wait until springtime.

"They want to see flowers in the yard and green grass on the hills and birds chirping," he said.

Sales have declined under $400,000 because of a lack of supply, not demand, brokers said.

"That's a slow market because there just aren't that many listings in that range," Morelli said.

January ended with less than 600 homes listed for sale, about a two-month supply of inventory. That remains considerably lower than the roughly six-month supply that experts say is needed for a balanced market.

Sales of financially distressed properties declined 69 percent from a year earlier. They comprised just 12 percent of all sales last month.

Five years ago, nearly three out of four sales in Sonoma County involved distressed properties, mostly in the starter-home segment.

Home sales dropped even more sharply last month for the entire Bay Area.

Sales in the nine-county region fell to a six-year low, according to real estate information service DataQuick.

The Bay Area reported the sale of 4,696 houses and condos last month, a decline of nearly 15 percent from a year ago.

The median price for those homes declined 4 percent from December to $525,000. However, it remained nearly 27 percent higher than a year earlier.

John Walsh, DataQuick president, said the mid-winter numbers usually aren't predictive of activity for the coming year. Instead, he will be looking at spring sales.

"We may find out how much pent-up supply and demand is still on hold from the great recession, and how it will play itself out," Walsh said in a statement.

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