Existing home sales jumped a hearty 6.5% to an annual pace of 4.74 million units in December, a bigger jump than expected, as home buyers took advantage of low prices on distressed properties, the National Association of Realtors reported Monday. Analysts were expecting a smaller increase to a4.4-4.5 million home annual pace.

The gain was driven by lower prices, according to NAR, which said 45% of sales in December involved distressed properties. The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $175,400, down 15.3% from $207,000 in December 2007. For all of 2008, the median price was $198,600, down 9.3% from $219,000 in 2007.

Inventory shrunk 11.7% to 3.68 million homes, a 9.3-month supply, from an 11.2-month supply in November.

"It appears some buyers are taking advantage of much lower home prices,"said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. "The higher monthly sales gain and falling inventory are steps in the right direction, but the market is still far from normal balanced conditions. Buyers will continue to have an edge over sellers for the foreseeable future."

Single-family home sales rose 7.0% to a rate of 4.26 million, 1.4% below December 2007. For all of 2008, single-family sales were off 11.9% to 4,349,000. The median existing single-family price was $174,700 in December, down 14.8% from a year ago. For the year, the single-family median price was down 9.5% from 2007 to $197,100.

Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 2.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 480,000 units in December from 470,000 in November, 18.4% below a year ago. The median condo price fell 18.3% from a year ago to $181,400 in December. For all of 2008, condo sales dropped 21.0% to 563,000 units, and the median existing condo price fell to $210,000, 7.2% below 2007.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast fell 1.4% to an annual pace of 720,000 in December, 14.3% below December 2007, with the median price down 7.8% from a year ago to $235,000. But the Midwest increased 4.0% to 1.04 million, 10.3% below a year ago, with the price down 11.4% to $140,800.Sales in the South rose a robust 7.4% to a pace of 1.74 million, down 11.2% from December 2007, with the median price off 8.0% to $158,600. The West jumped 13.6% to 1.25 million, 31.6% above December 2007, but the median price plummeted 31.5% to $213,000.