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Originally published November 4, 2010 at 1:09 PM | Page modified November 5, 2010 at 1:16 PM

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King County home sales higher than last month

October home sales unexpectedly rose above September's, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, though the total was still well below the same month a year ago.

Seattle Times business reporter

Worse than last year. But better than last month.

That's what October's King County home-sale numbers from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service show.

Buyers closed on 1,309 houses last month, 26 percent fewer than the same month last year, the service reported Thursday.

No surprise there. October 2009 was last year's busiest month as buyers rushed to close before federal tax credits for homebuyers were originally set to expire.

But in something of a surprise, the listing service also reported last month's single-family-home sales were up 13 percent from September's total, the first such increase since June.

Some observers said that may be an indication the market is emerging from the funk it fell into after the federal tax credits expired for real this spring.

"It's certainly an encouraging sign," said Glenn Crellin, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University.

"Normally, seasonally, we'd start drifting off by now," said Chuck Reiling, broker-owner at Veritus Realty Group in Bellevue, referring to the industry's typical fall slowdown.

Others, however, questioned whether the listing service's reported jump is real.

Its numbers reflect sales that agents reported last month — not sales that actually closed then, said Tim Ellis, who writes the bearish Seattlebubble.com real-estate blog.

The October total almost certainly includes some sales from previous months, he said. Other sources show no sales surge last month.

"I don't think you should read anything into this apparent month-over-month bump," Ellis said in an e-mail.

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Listing-service officials were not available for comment.

The October report shows the median price of King County houses that sold last month was $375,000, down a hair from $377,500 in October 2009. Prices rose in Seattle, North King County and the Eastside but fell in Southwest and Southeast King County.

The countywide median has drifted in a narrow range between $363,000 and $399,000 for nearly two years.

King County home sales for the past 18 months have risen and fallen in tandem with federal tax credits adopted in early 2009 to revive a moribund industry.

The first credit, for first-time buyers, originally was scheduled to expire last November. Sales rose as that date neared — October 2009 was the peak.

Congress expanded the incentive weeks before its scheduled expiration and extended it until June. Sales again peaked this spring, then tailed off starting in July. Many said the credits had "stolen" sales from future months.

October's report may or may not hint at a turnaround. October usually trails September in sales, although 2009 was an exception.

Southwest King County saw the biggest monthly increase in sales last month — 25 percent, according to the listing service. Seattle was next at 16 percent.

Agents in both areas say their business was up.

Barry Crittenden, broker at Windermere Real Estate's Burien office, said sales at his office rose one-third. "It's a pleasant surprise, but a bit of a mystery," he said. "This [the fall season] is where we should be seeing the ho-hums."

Traffic at open houses is up, Crittenden said.

Ben Hoefer, an agent at John L. Scott Real Estate's University Village office, said he was much busier in October than September. "I've personally had a lot more buyers come into the marketplace, or at least want to look at what their options are," he said.

A few weeks ago, Hoefer said, he expected just one more closed sale before the end of the year. Now he foresees four or five.

"If they find the right house, they're ready to jump on it," he said of prospective buyers. "But there are still a lot of lookers."

King County condo sales last month were down 9 percent from September and 41 percent from October 2009, the listing service reported. The median sale price was $231,750, down nearly 8 percent year-over-year.

In Snohomish County single-family-home sales fell 7 percent from September and 25 percent from October 2009. The median price fell nearly 8 percent from the same month last year, to $269,995.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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