Velux 5 leader Van Liew sailing to remote waters

Skipper Brad Van Liew aboard his yacht, Le Pingouin, at the start of Ocean Sprint 3 from Wellington, New Zealand, to Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Preliminary home sales figures for the Charleston area showed a slight decrease in January of 4 percent compared with the same period last year, though industry officials expect a gain when all of the numbers are in.

The Charleston Trident Association of Realtors said Wednesday that 416 homes sold last month, 17 fewer than in January 2009.

Once the final sales reports are submitted over coming weeks, the total likely will be revised upward by about 50, for a roughly 8 percent year-over-year increase, said Jeremy Willits, the association's 2010 president.

"It's a struggle to get everyone to post it by the end of the month," he said Thursday.

Willits called the latest sales trends encouraging. For example, the median home price for the region was $194,000, up 11 percent, or about $19,000, from a year ago.

"It's going in the right direction, albeit slowly," Willits said. "Median home sales are trending upward, not skyrocketing. People are cautiously coming back into the market."

Charleston County led the region in sales activity and price increases last month. Transaction volume and median prices slipped in Berkeley and Dorchester counties, according to preliminary figures.

Also, last month's total sales volume for the region was down sharply from December, when 618 local homes changed hands.

Still, there are signs that buyers are starting to make a dent in the glut of available properties. At the end of January, 9,171 homes were actively listed for sale in the region, or 13 percent fewer than a year ago. As a result, Willits said, prices are expected to remain stable because the inventory "is still larger than usual."

An $8,000 federal tax credit offered to first-time buyers, at least through this April, continued to draw interest last month as the economy tries to claw its way out of the deepest recession since World War II.

"It is helping out," Willits said. "Anytime you move the goal line a little bit closer, you make it easier to get to the finish line. The hope is that they will ultimately go buy furniture, carpeting and durable goods to spur the economy."

Cheap mortgages also are drawing buyers to the market. The average rate on a 30-year fixed home loan fell slightly this week, dipping just below 5 percent, the mortgage finance company Freddie Mac said Thursday. The average rate on 15-year fixed-rate mortgages slipped to 4.34 percent from 4.4 percent over the same period.

Confusion arose Thursday over the latest local sales data after the Realtors group released a statement comparing last month's volume against a preliminary January 2009 figure, reflecting a 12 percent increase for this year. It later clarified the discrepancy.

The total number of homes reported as sold through the Multiple Listing Service includes some properties from other counties adjacent to the Charleston metro area, according to association spokeswoman Meghan Weinreich.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or