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Charleston-area home sales ticked up slightly in March after falling in February. File/Leroy Burnell/Staff

Hamstrung by low inventory and rising prices, Charleston-area home sales nudged back into positive territory in March after slumping in February.

Residential real estate transactions rose nearly 2 percent last month from a year earlier, according to preliminary data Tuesday from the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.

“As expected, this month’s sales activity is steady, but a slower pace than last year," said association president Kimberly Lease. "Available inventory and affordability are putting downward pressure on our otherwise healthy market."

Lease lamented the dearth of affordably priced homes to prospective buyers.

“There’s certainly not a shortage of people who are interested in or are moving to our region, but there are simply not enough homes on the market in a variety of price ranges," she said. "If we want our market to remain healthy in the long term, we have to tackle both of these issues."

She said the region's policy makers must be open to smart growth and development that makes sense for a particular area or municipality.

"(They have to) ensure that what’s being built will serve a wide range of consumers, not just the higher end of the market,” Lease said.

The slight uptick in sales follows a 12 percent decline in transactions in February. So far this year, 3,940 homes have sold at a median price of $259,000. The volume is down about 1 percent from the first three months of last year.

The number of homes on the market across the region continues to be low, with 5,118 residential listings as "active" for sale in the Charleston Trident Multiple Listing Service as of March 31. That's down 12 percent from the third month of last year.

A healthier number of available homes in the region to keep prices in check is about 6,500, according to a previous association president.

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While the cost to own a home is on the rise, mortgage rates have been edging up, too, for much of the year, though there was a slight decline last week. Average long-term interest rates stand at 4.40 percent for a 30-year mortgage and 3.87 percent for a 15-year loan, according to financier Freddie Mac.

With low inventory and high demand, the price of homes is expected to continue to climb.

Property information service CoreLogic expects home prices to rise 4.7 percent through next February, contributing to the squeeze on first-time buyers.

"Family income is rising more slowly than home prices and mortgage rates, meaning the mortgage payment takes a bigger bite out of income for new home buyers," said Frank Martell, CoreLogic's CEO.

Nationally, home prices rose 6.7 percent over the past 12 months through February, according to the property information provider.

The local Realtors group also adjusted February's sales figures slightly higher in the region to show 1,123 home transactions at a slightly lower median price of $257,250.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.