In a new milestone for the Bay Area's recovering housing market, the median price paid for all types of dwellings in April crossed $500,000 for the first time in nearly five years, according to a report released Wednesday.
The $510,000 median is helping to trim the number of underwater homes in the nine-county Bay Area, giving homeowners who were underwater just months ago the chance to sell their house at a profit.
Jon Carlson recently decided to try selling the Pleasant Hill home he bought in 2007 for $651,000 "with a monthly mortgage payment that could choke a donkey."
A few years ago, the house was appraised at $400,000, he said. Listed recently for $649,000, it sold for $678,000, turning a short sale into an equity deal.
"The market's got a huge trajectory," said his agent, Kevin Kieffer of Keller Williams Realty.
In the market for existing single-family homes alone, prices were up double digits over the year, with Contra Costa County's median sales price leaping to $412,000, a 38.8 percent gain from April 2012. San Diego-based real estate information company DataQuick said that is the highest annual percentage gain for the county since the company began keeping records in 1988.
Santa Clara County's median sales price for existing single-family homes was $720,000 in April, DataQuick reported, a 21 percent increase from April 2012; Alameda County's was $510,000, a 36 percent increase; and San Mateo County's median sales price of $805,000 was up nearly 27 percent from the previous April.
The $510,000 median for all homes also includes condos and townhouses.
The price increases have some underwater homeowners thinking of possibly breaking even or making money on a sale in the near future. And some short sales -- where homes are sold for less than what is owed -- already have turned into equity sales.
San Jose engineer Roy Ng recently decided to sell his townhome for less than was owed on the mortgage, and was pleasantly surprised by the way it turned out.
"When I first thought of selling the house a year ago, the price was really depressed," Ng said. "I was like $100,000 below what I owed the bank and I didn't think I could even qualify for a short sale."
But with prices rising and demand hot, his agent, Tony Sayad found a buyer for $450,000.
"I don't have to pay a cent. I'm scot-free now," Ng said.
Four to five months ago, similar townhomes were selling for $380,000, Sayad said.
Sayad, with Elan Group and Tonyhelp.com, said that for the past two years he's done mostly short sales. "A lot of people had given up hope. They wanted out. Now people are saying, Wait a second, I'm only $50,000 away and prices are going up. Let's put it on the market."
Still, buyers outnumber sellers across the Bay Area in every price range and are competing with one another for what's available, agents say.
"I've been in real estate for 32 years and this is the lowest inventory we have ever had," said Carolyn Miller, president of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors. "We've had multiple-offer markets before, but it's just incredible. There are anywhere from three offers up to 20 or 30 offers. It's just been crazy."
Reflecting that tight inventory, sales of single-family homes dropped in many places. San Mateo County saw the biggest drop, 17.6 percent from a year ago. Elsewhere, the dips were slight, ranging from 3.1 percent in Santa Clara County to 4.1 percent in Alameda County.
But that varied by price range, reflecting increasing sales in the mid- to high-price ranges.
Sales of all types of homes under $500,000 in Contra Costa County were down 22 percent, but sales above that price rose 48 percent from a year earlier.
In Santa Clara County, sales of all types of homes under $500,000 were down 40 percent from a year earlier, but up 21 percent above that price. And sales for over $800,000 were up 17.3 percent.
"If we had normal inventory we'd be OK," said Michele Manzone, president of the West Contra Costa Association of Realtors, "but there's less than a month's worth of inventory. This will change, but in two months, six months, a year? Who knows?"
Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419. Follow him on Twitter.com/petecarey.
Median sales price of homes up across bay area
The median sales price for all types of homes -- condos, townhomes and single family detached -- was up sharply across the nine-county Bay Area in April.
Alameda $448,250, up 33.8 percent
Contra Costa $397,500, up 37.7 percent
Marin $799,000, up 29.3 percent
Napa $385,000, up 21.3 percent
Santa Clara $645,000, up 25.6 percent
San Francisco $815,000, up 16.4 percent
San Mateo $726,000, up 32 percent
Solano $238,000, up 36 percent
Sonoma $376,000, up 23.5 percent
Bay Area $510,000, up 30.8 percent