A report by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington said the rise in sales reflects bargain hunting and the large number of distressed properties in lower-priced neighborhoods.
Sales of homes were 9.6 percent higher than in the fourth quarter of 2010, the report said.
But the median price was down 8 percent from 2010, to $219,700.
That's the lowest fourth-quarter price since 2003, when the median was $205,700.
"The 2012 market will continue to challenge sellers trying to preserve their equity," said Glenn Crellin, associate director of the center.
The very low interest rates would ordinarily have created a much stronger real estate market, Crellin said.
Rates in the fourth quarter were the lowest ever recorded, he said.
Low prices and interest rates did mean that housing affordability indexes reached record highs for the eighth consecutive quarter, he said.
In Washington's urban counties, the greatest quarterly gain in sales was 17 percent in Snohomish County.
The greatest decline, 9.7 percent, was in Cowlitz County.
The biggest year-to-year drop was 13.5 percent in King County, while the smallest drop was 2.5 percent in Kitsap County.
In nine rural counties, median prices increased from the closing quarter of 2010.
"This indicates that the housing market is uneven, with some areas, or neighborhoods, seeing price stabilization, while others have many distressed and foreclosure properties," Crellin said.
In November, there were more than 76,000 Washington homes with mortgage payments at least 90 days past due. That's enough to feed the housing market for three quarters, Crellin said.
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