They're not roaring back, but local home sales showed continued signs of improvement last month, with the industry reporting its best December in five years.

The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors said preliminary figures show that 785 homes changed hands at a median price of $186,050 to close out 2011. Volume jumped about 15 percent while prices were up 2 percent compared to December 2010.

The group projected the three-county region will post at least a 6 percent gain in closed sales last year and a overall drop in prices of about 3 percent, which was attributed to foreclosed homes and other so-called distressed properties. Early projections show that 9,276 residences in the region were sold at a median price of $181,573 over the 12 months.

The broad-based slide in home values was a recurring theme throughout 2011. Prices have been under pressure in Charleston and many other markets from foreclosures and "short sales," in which mortgage lenders agree to take a loss. Those factors, along with competition from new homes, tend to force most sellers to cut their prices.

One closely watched trend is the inventory level, and locally that number that has been falling steadily, much to the industry's relief. About 6,900 homes listed are now actively for sale, down 25 percent from the end of 2010, the Realtors group said.

Still, some residential agents are concerned about a potentially large "shadow inventory" of foreclosed homes that have not yet hit the market.

"When we look at the positive indicators that developed throughout the year -- growth in sales, relative stability in median price and a declining inventory -- we see an extended period of positive movement and growth in our market, which leads me to believe we'll see another year of slow, but healthy progression in 2012," said Carolina One Real Estate's Herb Koger, who is the association's president this year. "While we're on the right track, we may continue to see some price softening as we keep working through our distressed inventory."

The group also revised its November sales figures slightly higher. The adjusted numbers show 663 residential transactions at median price of $195,000 for the month. The market statistics are based on homes sold through the group's Multiple Listing Service database.

Reach John P. McDermott at 937-5572.