A key recovery point for any real estate market: Monthly home sales drop but less dramatically.

That's what happened in the Charleston area during May, when sales declined a merciful 17 percent with 678 transactions compared with the same month last year, according to new figures from the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

That drop is the least severe decline in nearly two years.

The smaller decline could mean that Charleston's real estate market, which typically lags behind other areas, is finally catching up to the healthier market conditions seen in larger cities like Las Vegas and Sacramento, Calif., where year-over-year sales have increased by double-digit margins.

"I think we're at a leveling point," said Debbie Himebaugh of Century 21 Properties Plus. "At least buyers are out there testing (the market) out."

Himebaugh, who specializes in the Mount Pleasant area, said some of her homeowners are finally getting offers from buyers who are renting or looking to move into a larger property. Though some offers have been insultingly low — a sign of the times — the interest is promising, she said.

"A couple years ago, you would never have someone that gives an offer $80,000 below the list price (in the $500,000 range)," she said. "Realistically, you'd never have that."

But as homebuilders temper their plans to bring new homes into the market, sellers have an emerging competitor: distressed properties.

The local association's database shows that 9 percent of the 10,057 homes listed for sale on Wednesday were either in foreclosure or could be sold as a short sale, where the lender accepts a sale price that's lower than the mortgage's value.

That tough competition has pushed prices down from the lofty peaks seen several years ago.

Last month's median home price of $187,000 fell far below the $214,000 price recorded during May 2008.

May's median home price did increase 3 percent beyond April's price.

And the College of Charleston Home Value Index, which tracks the value of a home's features over time, estimates that home values grew 8.6 percent last month.

But association President Ralph Wetherell, a Goose Creek real estate agent, said he didn't think that the month-over-month price increase signals a local price rebound. Instead, he attributed the increase to less reliable data that's collected when the pool of home sales shrinks.

"If you go back (a few years ago), that average price was much more stable. It didn't bounce around because it's more representative of the properties in the overall market," he said. "Personally, I don't see a cost recovery."

The association also released a list of Charleston area neighborhoods that recorded a healthy number of transactions last month, which included Blackberry Creek in Summerville, Legend Oaks in North Charleston, James Island and Brickhope Greens in Goose Creek.