Look at housing on a national scale and you'll see trends such as one reported Thursday by the National Association of Realtors - sales of previously owned homes in May were the highest in 3½ years.

In South Jersey, the picture hasn't been as bright.

Home sales in Cape May and Cumberland counties both dropped in May, according to regional Multiple Listing Service data.

Atlantic County sales in May fared somewhat better - they were the same as in April, and 12 more houses sold than in May 2012, the figures show.

So what is keeping regional real estate from experiencing the national gains?

"It's employment, which is the big one," said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Atlantic Cape Community College's Center for Regional and Business Research. "And it is still waiting for the second-home buyers to start picking up speed. A lot of that is retiring people have forestalled (retirement) or they just don't feel safe to buy a second house."

He added, "Eventually the second homeowner and retirees will put a little pressure on the market and cause a domino effect and loosen things up. That might be what we have to wait for."

The National Association of Realtors, or NAR, said existing home sales reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.18 million, nearly 13 percent higher than May 2012.

That rate was the highest since November 2009, when the annual rate reached 5.44 million driven by a temporary tax credit of as much as $8,000 for first-time homebuyers.

Each month for the past 23 months, sales have been higher than they were a year ago, the NAR said.

In Atlantic County, 238 MLS-listed homes were sold in May. In Cape May County, 273 homes were sold, compared with 283 in April and 317 in May 2012.

In Cumberland County, 54 MLS-listed homes were sold, compared with 63 in April and 66 in May 2012.

Richard Shaffer III, broker/owner at Resorts LTD in Egg Harbor Township, said the conditions for buying a home in today's market are still good.

Interest rates have increased in the past month but are still below 4 percent - on Thursday averaging 3.93 percent for a 30-year fixed-mortgage rate, according to Freddie Mac, the government-owned mortgage giant.

In the 1990s, mortgage rates mostly ranged from about 7 percent to more than 10 percent.

"I think the market's slowly coming back. I think our area's slowly coming back. And new confidence in employment - that's the last thing I can see that's holding us back from taking off like the rest of the country is," Shaffer said.

The region had the highest unemployment rates in the state in April (the latest available month) - 12.6 percent in Atlantic County, 13.8 percent in Cape May County, and 12.9 percent in Cumberland County.

Nationally, the housing market has been on a sustained rebound. NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun called May's figures "overwhelmingly positive."

"However, the number of available homes is unlikely to grow, despite a nice gain in May, unless new home construction ramps up quickly by an additional 50 percent," he said in a statement.

According to national figures, foreclosures and short sales accounted for 18 percent of May sales, compared with 25 percent in May 2012.

Foreclosures sold for an average discount of 15 percent below market value; short sales, a 12 percent reduction, the NAR reported.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-272-7253

Total existing homes sold

County May 2013 April 2013 May 2012

Atlantic 238 238 226

Cape May 273 283 317

Cumberland 54 63 66

Source: Regional MLS