Home-sales figures released Wednesday provided a fresh indication that the nationwide improvement in the housing market is not yet evident in southern New Jersey.

The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes reached a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million in April, the highest level since a homebuyer tax credit bumped up sales in 2009.

Sales were about 10 percent higher than a year ago, and monthly sales now have surpassed prior-year levels for the past 22 months.

In the region, however, sales have lagged this spring compared to the same period in 2012.

According to regional Multiple Listing Service data, existing home sales in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties combined reached 571 in April, an 8 percent decline from April 2012. March sales also were down.

Joan Farrell, office manager and agent at Monihan Realty Inc. in Ocean City, said dismal weather earlier this year may have been a factor on the island.

"We were nine degrees colder and twice as wet as we were last year," said Farrell, of Ocean City. "I think it's going to take a while to see what this year shakes out like."

In Ocean City, a resort town driven by second-home buying, there were 68 sales in April, compared to 82 in the prior-year period, according to MLS figures.

Inventory also has been dropping compared to the previous few years, she said.

"The biggest difference this year is the people coming to town are coming with the intention of buying. We really haven't seen a lot of, 'I want to see the market and get a feel,'" she said.

In Atlantic County, 232 MLS-listed homes were sold in April, compared to 266 one year ago. In Cape May County, there were 278 sales, compared to 302 in April 2012; in Cumberland County, 61 compared to 50 last April.

Nationally, tight credit requirements and limited inventory have been constraining sales, which should be surpassing an annual pace of 5 million, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors.

Existing home sales reached their highest pace since November 2009, when they hit a pace of 5.44 million. This was driven by a temporary tax credit of as much as $8,000 for first-time homebuyers.

The NAR said distressed sales made up 18 percent of April sales, down from 21 percent in March. Foreclosures sold for an average 16 percent below market value; short sales, for 14 percent below market value.

Nationally, the median time for a home on the market was 46 days in April, compared to 83 days in April 2012, the NAR said. The median means half of homes sold in shorter time, half longer.

Contact Brian Ianieri: