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Tax-credit rush boosts home sales in area, S.C.

Home sales are rebounding throughout much of South Carolina, up 16 percent in the first quarter as buyers scramble to get homes under contract before a federal tax credit worth up to $8,000 ends next week.

In York, Chester and Lancaster counties, sales were up nearly 12 percent in the first quarter over the previous year, with 50 more homes sold during that time compared to 2009. That brings the total number of sales for the year so far to 477.

In March alone, 195 homes were sold in the tri-county area, a 20 percent increase over the 162 sold during the same time last year, according to a report Monday from the S.C. Realtors trade group.

Statewide, home sales had their biggest gain for the year in March, spiking 20 percent from the previous March.

Columbia's sales have remained stagnant this year, declining 2.9 percent so far for the quarter, the report showed. Sales were down 2.8 percent in March.

The Midlands was one of only four regions in the state with decreasing sales, along with Orangeburg, Sumter and Greenwood.

But Columbia is still in the top three regions in the state in terms of number of homes sold for the quarter, behind only Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Of the state's 15 regions, 11 saw increasing sales in the first quarter. Gains were largest along the hard-hit coast, which is starting to see part of its market come back as buyers snap up bargains.

Prices held steady throughout much of the state. The median price of homes sold in the first quarter ticked up 1.7 percent to $138,000. In York, Chester and Lancaster counties, the median price was around $145,000 - up $10,000 over the first quarter of 2009.

Much of the coast, however, continued to see a decline in sales, including a 7.4 percent decrease in Hilton Head to $238,000.

"The first quarter looks a lot better than last year," said Nick Kremydas, chief executive of S.C. Realtors.

But he stopped short of calling it a true turnaround in the market.

"We've been optimistic for the last one and a half, two years," he said. "I'm not too eager to make that call yet."

The true test will be the second half of the year, he said, when the federal tax credit ends and mortgage rates are predicted to be higher.

"We'll find out for sure then," he said.