Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

Home sales and prices were on the mend in 2012, according to year-end figures from real estate agent organizations in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

More houses sold and at a higher median price in Tuolumne County compared with 2011. Its 910 sales were a 16 percent improvement on the 784 homes sold the year before. The median price notched up 3 percent from $160,000 to $165,000.

"We have turned the corner in 2012 on sales both in value and numbers," said Tuolumne County Association of Realtors President Greg Humphrey, an agent with Coldwell Banker Twain Harte. "It's a very modest improvement … but very encouraging. We had five straight years of decline prior to this."

Calaveras County witnessed a 6.5 percent increase in homes sold, going from 906 in 2011 to 967 last year. The median home price remained essentially the same, slipping slightly from $169,950 to $169,000.

Calaveras County Association of Realtors Executive Officer Valerie Moon said the second half of the year improved upon the first half and the market is "stabilizing" with a positive outlook.

"We hope this trend continues into 2013 for sellers, buyers and our (agents) as well," Moon said.

The types of sales are also encouraging to Moon and Humphrey. Foreclosures are no longer dominating the market, and so-called "short sales," in which a seller owes more on their mortgage than the price the home fetches, have become more common, Moon said.

"The banks are now cooperating more on underwater homes, with buyers, sellers and agents, to liquidate these homes," Humphrey said.

Short sales are less damaging to a seller's credit than a foreclosure, he added.

In Tuolumne County, short sales increased 29 percent, normal non-distressed private sales jumped 33 percent, and foreclosure sales were down 9 percent, according to Multiple Listing Service statistics.

"When there are so many foreclosures and banks are so involved, we have a very unbalanced market," Humphrey said. "We are moving toward a more balanced market with less bank involvement."

For the past six years, as the market fell, it became difficult to establish values on properties, Moon said. Sellers could not count on a fair market value to hold during a listing period and commonly had to reduce the price. Some sellers then tried to beat the curve and started with a price below the market value, she said, creating a sort of downward spiral.

Short sales, she added, are typically done with multiple appraisals, and banks rarely accept less than 87 percent of the fair market value from a buyer, often requiring 100 percent.

Anecdotally, Humphrey said he is seeing more investors who purchase a home, improve it and sell it at a higher price, return to the market.

"You hadn't seen that much at all for a few years," he said.

The California Association of Realtors projects a 5.7 percent rise in median home values statewide for 2013. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are expected to do particularly well, and Moon and Humphrey agree that historically that means an echo will resound in the Mother Lode.

"When things go well in the Bay Area, it follows suit here in Tuolumne County … usually about six to eight months later," Humphrey said.