Existing home sales increased in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties in 2012, despite a slower December in some areas.

The greatest yearly increase was in Cape May County, where 2,972 homes were sold last year, a 19 percent rise from 2011, according to regional Multiple Listing Service data.

Atlantic and Cumberland counties’ 2012 sales grew 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively, even as last month’s sales lagged December 2011.

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“Sales-wise, it was my best year in at least four or five years, since probably 2008,” said Pam Stearns, broker at Re/Max Atlantic in Absecon. “The average sales price is way down, so it means I have to sell more houses to do the same volume.”

Although local sales increases followed the national trend, growth in home values in the region lags well behind the national trend, according to Zillow Inc., a Seattle-based real estate information firm.

Nationally, estimated median home values rose about 6 percent in 2012, Zillow reported Tuesday.

In the region, Atlantic County home values rose about 1 percent to $185,800; in Cape May County, values rose almost 4 percent to $313,600; and in Cumberland County, they dropped nearly 13 percent to $120,100, according to Zillow.

In New Jersey, the increase was about 1 percent.

Zillow chief economist Stan Humphries cqsaid South Jersey’s home values reflect the state still dealing with a backlog of foreclosures.

“Generally, the pattern in South Jersey is not quite as rosy as the nation. Generally, that has to do with the speed with which New Jersey is dealing with its foreclosures,” he said. “The pipeline is longer, and it creates a bit more uncertainty.”

Stearns said there are some other challenges in the market currently.

“The hardest part we’re having getting contracts to closing is the appraisals are all coming in low, which pushes the sales price down lower,” she said.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors on Tuesday reported existing U.S. home sales reached almost 4.7 million last year, up 9 percent from 2011 and the highest volume since 2007.

In December, sales dropped about 1 percent, to a seasonally adjusted rate of 4.94 million.

Foreclosures and short sales, which made up 24 percent of last month’s home sales nationally, sold for 17 percent and 16 percent below market value, the NAR said.

In a statement, NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun cqpredicted home sales and prices will be higher in 2013.

Gail Wilsey Morrison, broker and owner of Wilsey Realty LLC in Cape May, said 2012 was her company’s best year since it opened in 2005.

“I think the rates have held. And I think that people are wanting to invest in real estate more than they were before versus putting their money in the stock market,” she said.

Joel Naroff, cqpresident of Naroff Economic Advisors and owner of a Margate home, also saw good signs in the national housing market.

“The housing market turned the corner in 2012, and the small pullback in sales in December does not detract from that fact,” he said in a statement.

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