Limited inventory and lingering misconceptions about storm damage may be partially responsible for this year’s slower start of existing home sales in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, local real estate professionals say.

Nationally, year-over-year volume has increased for 20 straight months and reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.98 million in February, the National Association of Realtors reported Thursday. This was the highest in more than three years.

In the region, however, sales volumes of existing homes have slipped for several months, including February, after showing double-digit percentage increases in most area counties in 2012.

Cori Haberkern, broker at Century 21 Atlantic Professional Realty in Absecon and president of the Atlantic City and County Board of Realtors, said lower inventory may be playing a factor, including among homeowners underwater on mortgages reluctant to try to sell.

“I feel there’s less on the market because I think people are holding off — to not have to do a short sale in some scenarios or are not in a position to be able to,” she said.

Most buyers in the market now are buying for a specific reason — to upsize or downsize based on their needs, she said.

In January and February, 307 MLS-listed homes were sold in Atlantic County, 3 percent fewer than the same period of 2012.

Similar trends held in Cape May County, with 243 sales, an 18 percent drop, and Cumberland County with 63 sales, a 17 percent decline, according to regional MLS data.

Carol Menz, broker/owner at Coastline Realty in Cape May, said the region may still be dealing with misconceptions that people think the area sustained significant damage from Hurricane Sandy.

“I think there are a lot of misperceptions, people are unsure about areas that were damaged, also they’re a little fearful of the FEMA regulations and the changes coming to (flood) insurance, how it will it affect them. There’s a lot of myths out there, and people think they won’t be able to get insurance,” she said.

Menz said some of the higher-end buyers of vacation homes had been waiting as prices declined, an area that has been coming back.

“So that market was once a little slower, and we’re seeing that market recover now. And we don’t have an enormous amount of inventory coming onto the market,” she said.

Menz said plenty of people have been coming down to look at real estate, particularly since the region received very little snowfall this year.

On Thursday, the National Association of Realtors, which releases monthly reports tracking existing home sales, said February’s national sales were the highest since November 2009, when a temporary tax credit offering an $8,000 government subsidy boosted sales nationally and in New Jersey.

Homes sold through foreclosure and short sales accounted for 25 percent of February’s national sales, up from 23 percent in January, the association said. On average, short sales in February sold for 15 percent below market value; foreclosures for 18 percent below.

At the end of February, total inventory of existing homes for sale was 1.94 million, which represents a supply of 4.7 months at the current sales pace, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun said in a statement. A year ago there was a 6.4 month supply.

“The only headwinds are limited housing inventory, which varies greatly around the country, and credit conditions that remain too restrictive,” he said.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253