The first evidence of the impact of the new federal $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers surfaced in the February report of existing-home sales from the National Association of Realtors: Sales were up 5.1%, with half attributed to first-time buyers.

The NAR, which put out its February report Monday morning, said sales were at a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 4.72 million homes in February, up from 4.49 million homes in January but still 4.6% below the pace of February, 2008. Much of the sales activity continued in the distressed property segment, accounting for 40% to 45% of all transactions, according to NAR.

Traffic also was up, which the NAR said should translate into a pickup in sales in late spring.

"The number of buyers looking for homes rose 5% in February, and also was 5% above a year ago," said Charles McMillan, NAR president and a broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Dallas-Fort Worth. "It appears most of the increase in buyer traffic occurred in the latter part of the month after the $8,000 first-time buyer tax credit was put in place."

The sales came at a price, however. The national median existing-home price for all housing types plunged 15.5% to $165,400 in February. Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said foreclosed properties were distorting median prices downward. "Our analysis shows that distressed homes typically are selling for 20% less than the normal market price, and this naturally is drawing down the overall median price," he said.

Single-family sales were up 4.4% from January to an annual pace of 4.23, 3.6% below February 2008. The median existing single-family home price was down 15% to $164,600 in February on a year-over-year basis. Existing condominium and co-op sales increased 11.4% to an annual pace of 490,000 units, 13.1% below a year ago. The median existing condo price plummeted 18.7% to $172,200 in February compared to a year earlier.

Total housing inventory at month's end was up 5.2% to 3.80 million existing homes available for sale, a 9.7-month supply, even with January. The NAR said, however, that in the six months prior to February, the total number of homes for sale had steadily declined from a record level last July.

Regionally, existing-home sales in the Northeast jumped 15.6 percent to an annual pace of 740,000 in February, 14.9% below February 2008, with the median price down 4.8% from a year ago to $251,200. Sales in the Midwest were up only 1.0% to a pace of 1.04 million, 14.0% lower than a year ago, and the median price was down 7.8% to $131,000. The South saw a 6.1% sales increase to a pace of 1.74 million, 11.2% below February 2008, with the median price off 10% to $146,700. The West was up only 2.6% month-to-month to a pace of 1.2 million, but that was 30.4% above a year ago. The median price in the West was $204,600, 30.3% below February 2008.

Yun said, however, that the median price of new listings in the West in February began to rise for the first time in three years.

Separately, the Florida Association of Realtors reported a 16.7% month-over-month jump in existing home sales in February to 9,858, up 20% from last February. Thirteen of Florida's metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) reported increased existing-home sales in February and 11 MSAs also showed gains in condo sales. Florida's median sales price of $141,900, however, was down 29% from last February.