NEW YORK (AP) – Home sales in the Northeast tumbled nearly 20 percent in February from last year, the worst region in the country, as the recession and layoffs made buyers cautious, the National Association of Realtors said Monday.

The median sales price in the Northeast fell under 5 percent year-over-year to $251,200.

Nationally, sales of existing homes fell 10.3 percent in February from a year ago, without adjusting for seasonal factors. The U.S. median sales price slid almost 16 percent to $165,400.

“We’re at a point in our economy where everyone knows someone who’s been personally affected,” said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “That certainly affects psychology and, as we know, psychology is a very important part of the housing market.”

While the West Coast is getting a sales boost from heavily discounted foreclosures – but a walloping on prices – the Northeast housing market, which has a much smaller amount of distressed sales, is withering under the national recession and job losses, Retsinas said.

Home sales in seven major Northeast cities recorded double-digit declines in February, while median prices continue to fall across the region, according to The Associated Press-Re/Max Monthly Housing Report, also released Monday.

The report analyzed sales transactions in nine Northeast metropolitan statistical areas filed by all real estate agents, regardless of company affiliation.

Erik Pearson, an agent at Prudential Prime Properties in Boston, expects a brisk spring in Beantown. He said there’s been more interest from first-time homebuyers looking in the $300,000 to $700,000 range compared to the last few months of 2008.

“People feel the end is here or very close,” he said.

However, the city didn’t fare well compared with February last year. Sales there declined more than 16 percent in January from the year before, according to the AP-Re/Max report, while the median price fell almost 14 percent to $280,000.

The pink slips on Wall Street haven’t discouraged buyers from shopping around, said John Allegro, a real estate agent with ERA Caputo Realty in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

“Open house attendance is up. Activity has perked up a little,” he said.

But few are pulling the trigger yet, according to AP-Re/Max’s data. Home sales in the suburban counties surrounding New York City – Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester counties – look like the stock market. Sales were off by 33 percent in February and the median price fell more than 13 percent to $370,000. The supply of unsold homes also grew by nearly 5 percent, the only area in the Northeast to show an increase.

Nearby in Passaic, N.J., home to many Manhattan commuters, February sales fell 23 percent, while prices dropped nearly 13 percent from a year ago to $311,000.

Providence, R.I., is the region’s anomaly. The housing market there looks more like the West Coast than the Northeast. Nearly one in four sales there are foreclosures or short sales, where homeowners sell houses for less than the amount owed on the mortgage.

That has sent prices plunging, but has given a boost to volume. In February, the median price dropped by almost 25 percent to $184,900, but sales inched up less than 1 percent, the only Northeast city to post an increase.

“Distressed sales are almost a different segment of the market now,” said Re/Max real estate agent Julie Longtin, who is working with buyers like Justin Natale to buy foreclosures, renovate them and rent them.

Natale is waiting to close on his latest investment, a bank-owned two-bedroom townhouse in downtown Providence, for $35,000. Last week, the bank asked to postpone the closing.

An investor since 2001, Natale hasn’t bought anything since 2005, when the market got out of control with loose lending and “cowboy investors,” he said.

Now, as an all-cash buyer, he can pick up foreclosed properties at a bargain and fix them up cheaply too with inexpensive construction labor.

“It’s a different time,” Natale says. “The sweetest spot in real estate is the distressed properties market.”

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